Physician and nursing bias can lead to bad medical decisions and health care

It seems that pretty much anywhere you look these days, someone’s talking about bias—whether racial, gender, political, or some other type. But did you realize that bias plays a significant role in some healthcare mistakes?

In my long practice as a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I’ve seen bias in many different cases.

When the topic of bias crosses my mind, I always think about a case where a young African American woman was sent home from a comprehensive stroke center hospital in Houston’s Texas Medical Center after being told that her symptoms were a psychogenic reaction to stress—in other words, it was all in her mind. Unfortunately, they were wrong. She was in the early stages of a massive stroke that changed her life forever.

The emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who transported her by ambulance from her home to the hospital emergency room commented that she had been drinking the night before. The fact that she was young, black, and had been partying the night before clouded everyone’s judgment, including that of the resident neurologist, who decided to discharge her without a workup.

Right now, I’m investigating a new medical malpractice case in Corpus Christi involving a man in his 60s. He went to a hospital emergency room (ER) because of shortness of breath, pain in his abdomen, and lower extremity swelling or edema. The man and his family gave a thorough medical history to the doctors, including that he had no known cardiac or liver diagnoses.

He was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and closely watched. During his hospitalization, a gastroenterologist diagnosed him with cirrhosis secondary to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or a fatty liver. This is a form of cirrhosis that has nothing to do with alcoholism or alcohol intake. They treated him for a new kidney problem and drained fluid from his abdomen with a procedure called a paracentesis. The plan was to continue to see him on an outpatient basis for paracentesis procedures, as needed.

The outpatient treatment went well for several months, but when this gentleman had a downturn he returned to the ER with another bout of the same symptoms, plus fever with chills. Strangely, the ER doctor wrote in the medical record that this patient had a history of alcoholic cirrhosis. This, of course, was incorrect, because he’d been previously diagnosed with cirrhosis of the non-alcoholic type. He was admitted for sepsis caused either by pneumonia or a bacterial peritonitis infection.

The error and distinction became significant in this man’s care. Every doctor and nurse who saw him after the ER physician re-stated, in error, that the patient had alcoholic cirrhosis. As a former hospital administrator, I like to call that “chart creep,” meaning that one provider’s error often gets repeated without question throughout the care.

He was admitted to a general medical unit, instead of the ICU. The physicians and nurses had numerous opportunities to transfer him to the ICU for a higher level of care, but instead apparently let their bias control their evaluation and blamed his alcoholic cirrhosis. As a result, this man needlessly passed away.

If you’ve been seriously injured by bias or another type of poor care in a hospital setting, contact a top-rated Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.