Patient’s Death Lands Clinician in Court for Advising Cessation of Aspirin Therapy

Dr. L looked over the records from the hospital for a moment before examining her patient. The tests indicated that the patient hadn’t been having an active heart attack while at the hospital. But the hospitalist noted in the file that there was still an “obvious concern” despite the negative tests. Thus, a nuclear stress test was ordered, which was interpreted as normal. Once that occurred, and the patient was no longer in pain, he was released from the hospital. 

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Dr. L’s exam of the patient revealed nothing unusual or abnormal, and Mr. F reported feeling fine now.

Normal test results, normal exam… Dr. L decided to just have the patient return in four months for a repeat check.

On the way out, the patient stopped and turned. “Oh,” he said, “I almost forgot… At the hospital they gave me aspirin and told me to take an aspirin every day, which I’ve done since I left the hospital. Should I keep taking the aspirin?”

“No,” said Dr. L. “Your heart seems fine. Aspirin therapy isn’t necessary. I’ll see you in four months!”

But Dr. L did not see the patient again. A week prior to his scheduled appointment, he died of a fatal heart attack. Dr. L was saddened to hear this news about her patient but never expected a lawsuit to follow. Yet, several months later, she was served with papers notifying her that she was being sued for medical malpractice by Mr. F’s widow.

Dr. L spoke to the defense lawyer provided by her insurance company. He advised her that most cases settle out of court before trial. This one, however, did not.

At trial, Dr. L testified that there was no reason to suspect a cardiac cause for the patient’s chest pain episode given that she saw the patient within a week of his having a full cardiac workup in the hospital and all tests (EKG, serial cardiac enzymes, nuclear stress test) coming back negative. She further testified that there was not one medical record that indicated that continued aspirin use was necessary or recommended from a cardiac perspective.

The plaintiff’s attorney had a medical expert who testified that Dr. L was negligent in telling the patient to stop taking aspirin without referring him to a cardiologist because aspirin is a powerful cardiac stabilizing medicine. The expert noted that virtually all patients like Mr. F are sent home on aspirin therapy following hospitalization for chest pain, and that Dr. L should not have told the patient to stop taking it without approval of a cardiologist.

After deliberating for several hours, the jury found for the plaintiff, and awarded Mr. F’s family $3.74 million in damages.