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A doctor diagnosed her pregnancy as ectopic; tragic misdiagnosis

A couple of years ago, a young woman went to the doctor complaining of pelvic pain and bleeding. Recently married, she had gotten pregnant -- but unfortunately, the embryo was developing outside her uterus. This is called an ectopic pregnancy, and it's potentially life-threatening to both the woman and the embryo.

Ectopic pregnancies are rare, but when they do occur the best medical practice is to end them. The risk to the mother of continuing is quite high, and the chances the pregnancy will come to term are quite low. So, this young woman was given a drug called methotrexate to safely end her pregnancy.

When she returned for a checkup several days later, however, it became apparent that her pregnancy had not been ectopic, after all. In normal, intrauterine pregnancies, methotrexate doesn't always cause an abortion -- but it does cause extremely serious birth defects. The doctor's misdiagnosis had cost her a perfectly healthy child.

Diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy? If you're unsure at all, wait for a second test.

Tragically, this was not an isolated incident. Doctors were well aware of the possibility of misdiagnosing ectopic pregnancies even in 2013. There's even a Facebook group called "Misdiagnosed Ectopic, Given Methotrexate," which as of this writing had 248 members.

One paper, however, estimated that doctors who diagnosed pregnancies as ectopic using one common method would be wrong as often as 40 percent of the time. That method is to take a blood test and an ultrasound on one visit, which is how doctors trained in the 80s and 90s were taught.

A panel of experts in obstetrics-gynecology, radiology and emergency medicine sought to address the problem by developing new diagnostic guidelines based on more recent research. Their recommendations were published in the October 2013 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Unless the initial test shows internal bleeding or other serious complications, the experts now recommend that women diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy be told to wait and undergo the tests a second time a few days later. Absent a separate emergency, most women in this position will be perfectly fine in the interim.

It's hard to imagine a more devastating experience than having your normal pregnancy terminated due to a misdiagnosis. If you or someone you love has experienced a loss under similar circumstances, a medical malpractice attorney may be able to help you get answers.

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