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Who is liable when both the obstetrician and radiologist err?

Liability in a medical malpractice case is not always clear. There are situations when multiple parties are responsible for an error and others where although a number of medical professionals were involved only one bears the responsibility of the diagnosis and treatment.

A recent case provides an example.

The case begins when a 20-year-old female entered an emergency department (ED) complaining of pain in her abdomen. Upon examination, the ED physician stated the pain was likely the result of an ectopic pregnancy. The doctor admitted the woman to the hospital and ordered an ultrasound.

A radiologist reviewed the ultrasound and claims to have stated the ultrasound provided "suspicion for ectopic pregnancy" and recommended a follow-up. On the second day, an obstetrician saw the patient. Based on a discussion with the radiologist, the obstetrician believed the patient was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. He then discussed various options for pain management with the patient. He stated the patient agreed to methotrexate treatment.

 

Days later, the patient scheduled an appointment with the obstetrician citing continued pain. During this appointment, it became clear the pregnancy was not ectopic, but in the uterus. The obstetrician discussed the potential outcomes of the pregnancy could include "miscarriage, normal development or methotrexate embryopathy" due to the prior administration of methotrexate. The patient chose to continue her pregnancy.

A medical team delivered the infant at 35 weeks through cesarean section. The baby suffered many abnormalities including hearing loss, kidney and spinal issues. The infant also did not have a rectum.

The mother filled a medical malpractice lawsuit against the obstetrician. The mother likely did not include the radiologist in the case. In this situation, the accepted standard of care does not require the radiologist provide a definitive diagnosis. The responsibility ultimately rests with the managing physician -- in this case, the obstetrician. The physician ultimately agreed to a monetary settlement with the victim.

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