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Medical Miscommunication May Have Been a Factor in the Death of Dallas Ebola Patient

In a technology-driven world, where text messages and emails are often the preferred methods of communication, we sometimes forget the importance of effective face-to-face communication. But face-to-face communication and mutual, comprehensive understanding is often essential in providing adequate medical treatment to patients. As the nation reels at the events unfolding at and around Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, the most stunning aspect of this situation is the abundance of medical miscommunication – which may have led directly to the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, and to more cases of Ebola.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that patient-caregiver communication is absolutely critical when any medical care is rendered. A patient must share, and a medical professional intently must listen to, all potentially relevant medical information. This allows the medical professionals to arrive at a diagnosis, or create a reasonable differential diagnosis (a series of possible diagnoses based upon current symptoms and history). Medical professionals may be able to rely on voluminous electronic medical records in treating a patient, but this is often difficult in an emergent situation. Moreover, and as the death of Mr. Duncan should remind us, a long medical history and general appearance will not always reveal a potentially fatal diagnosis.

Unfortunately, there are some pieces of information which medical professionals should consider relevant with or without a patient’s emphasis of that information. In the case of Mr. Duncan, he exhibited early signs of Ebola shortly after having visited West Africa. While Mr. Duncan was not aware that he came into contact with a person carrying the Ebola virus, his reported symptoms and travel history should have set off numerous red flags among his treating medical professionals.

Yet as Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Nurse Brianna Aguirre told a national audience recently, the medical staff failed to communicate on and plan for the possibility of an Ebola case. There were no required information sessions regarding this deadly, contagious disease with no vaccines. There was no plan in place. The medical professionals had not properly communicated regarding the risks and were unprepared to diagnose or treat the disease.

Ultimately, according to published reports, Mr. Duncan’s lab work was mishandled. Hospital communication was significantly delayed due to unpreparedness. Even when infectious disease experts were consulted, they had no idea how to address the situation. Worse, Mr. Duncan was sent home potentially to infect his friends and family. Tragically, he died where other American-based Ebola patients have survived because he was not diagnosed and treated expediently.

While one might think that these medical miscommunications would end once the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) became involved in the Ebola situation in Dallas, the medical communication failures continued. As staff at the hospital noted, it took days for the hospital to require the staff to wear proper protective gear. It appears that this led to the infection of at least two medical professionals at the hospital, including Nurse Amber Vinson. A soon-to-be bride, Nurse Vinson planned on traveling to Akron for wedding preparations and was concerned when she had a low-grade fever. She communicated with medical professionals at the CDC several times, asking if it was appropriate for her to board a plane from Dallas to Cleveland.

Concentrating on minor numerical variations in her fever, as opposed to viewing the scope of the situation and listening to a fellow medical professional and patient, the CDC cleared her to board the plane – where Nurse Vinson may have infected as many as 132 passengers bound for Northeast Ohio. The CDC has now stated the obvious – that Nurse Vinson should not have boarded the flight, and these clear communication failings will certainly be explored by members of Congress.

Still, this tragic and potentially terrifying situation shows that even medical professionals at the highest level dealing with incredibly fatal and dangerous conditions sometimes commit egregious miscommunications and lapses in judgment. If it can happen in the face of a potential Ebola outbreak, then it can and does happen every day all around the country.

Always be sure to communicate your symptoms and concerns clearly. But if your medical care giver is not listening to you or ignoring your concerns, make sure your symptoms and concerns are noted. If you or a family member suffers death or injury as a result of medical miscommunication, call the Ohio medical malpractice attorneys at The Eisen Law Firm to schedule a free initial consultation at 216-687-0900 or online.