North Carolina – Internal Medicine – Three Emergency Department Visits With Persistent Severe Headache And A Negative CT Head Scan

The Board was notified of a professional liability payment paid on 3/8/16.

A 48-year-old female presented to the emergency department three times over the course of two days with complaints of severe headache.

During the 7/28/12 visit, she had a non-contrast CT head, which was reported as normal.  The patient’s headache was treated as an acute migraine attack.  She was discharged with anti-migraine, anti-nausea, and anti-anxiety medications.

On 7/29/12, the patient returned with persistent symptoms, was treated symptomatically, and discharged.  Later that day, the patient again returned to the emergency department with continuing headache and persistent nausea and vomiting.

The patient was admitted to the hospital under the care of an internist.  The patient was started on maintenance IV fluids to treat dehydration and was treated for the underlying migraine with analgesics and antiemetic.

During the internist’s care of the patient, the internist did not order a spinal tap or additional CT scan, instead relying on the 7/28/12 emergency department CT scan.

On hospitalization day three, the patient was discharged with anti-migraine and anti-nausea medications, and was advised to follow up with her primary care physician or neurologist within a week.

On 8/2/12, the day after discharge, the patient returned to the emergency department with a continuing headache and a CT scan of her head showed intracranial hemorrhage in the right temporal lobe.

The patient was then airlifted to a tertiary care center and had clipping of a brain aneurysm/hematoma removal and ventriculoperitoneal shunt placement.

The Board obtained the patient’s records and sent them to a qualified independent medical expert for review.

The independent medical expert judged the internist’s conduct to be below the minimum standard of competence given failure to provide adequate care for severe persistent headache with normal neurological exam.  The medical expert found that the internist failed to perform a lumbar puncture and repeat imaging or seek neurology input.

The Board issued a public letter of concern, which was reported to the Federation of State Medical Boards.  It was not reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank.

State: North Carolina


Date: July 2017


Specialty: Internal Medicine, Hospitalist


Symptom: Headache, Nausea Or Vomiting


Diagnosis: Intracranial Hemorrhage


Medical Error: False negative, Delay in proper treatment, Failure to order appropriate diagnostic test, Underestimation of likelihood or severity


Significant Outcome: Permanent Loss Of Functional Status Or Organ, Hospital Bounce Back


Case Rating: 4


Link to Original Case File: Download PDF



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