When the patient arrived on the orthopedic floor, his neurologic status was described as being normal. On the orthopedic floor, the patient was reportedly not seen by either the admitting physician or the spine specialist for more than 24 hours. He developed signs consistent with alcohol withdrawal and was transferred to the telemetry floor. During the following 24 hours, the patient developed incontinence and was eventually rendered a paraplegic from spinal cord compression.
In excerpts from the expert witness deposition, John Flaherty, MD, an associate professor at Northwestern Medical School, testified that ankylosing spondylitis is “one of the first diseases that you study in medical school.” He went on to state the following:
–In 21 years of emergency medicine practice, he had seen 500 to 600 cases of ankylosing spondylitis and had been the diagnosing physician in approximately 150 to 200 of those cases.
–Spinal fractures occurring in ankylosing spondylitis are “almost always unstable,” represent an “extreme risk,” and “almost always lead to neurologic damage unless they’re attended to right away.”
–There is a “two to three times greater incidence of spinal cord compression” in ankylosing spondylitis patients suffering from spinal fractures and such statistics are “well described in medical textbooks and in the medical literature.”
–Spinal fractures in ankylosing spondylitis can be compared to acute myocardial infarctions in that they are “one of the few true emergencies we have.”
The expert faulted the emergency physician for:
–Failing to understand the pathophysiology of spinal fractures in patients with ankylosing spondylitis (which the expert also called “brittle spine disease”)
–Failing to have the patient either evaluated in the emergency department by a spinal surgeon or transferring the patient to a hospital where the patient could be immediately evaluated by a spinal surgeon
–Failing to admit the patient to the intensive care unit–Failing to perform a rectal exam on the patient
–Attributing weakness on the patient’s re-examination to a “pain response” instead of spinal cord injury
You be the judge
Do the expert’s statements represent the standard of care in emergency medicine regarding ankylosing spondylitis? Are his criticisms of the emergency physician’s actions justified?