Shocking Report Reveals A&E Doctors Unable To Spot Brain Bleed Symptoms

Lawyer calls on Health Minister to urgently review training

16.03.2012

A medical law expert has said an urgent review must take place to ensure that doctors are properly trained after a shocking survey - conducted by the NHS more than three years ago, but only made public for the first time this week by the BBC - identified one in six A&E doctors were completely unaware of one of the major symptoms of a potentially fatal bleed to the brain.

Jennifer Emerson, a medical law expert with Irwin Mitchell Solicitors in Birmingham, says vital opportunities to save lives could have been missed and is now writing to Health Minister, Andrew Lansley, urging the Government to undertake an urgent ‘root and branch’ review of training to reassure the public and protect patient welfare.

Irwin Mitchell’s Medical Law and Patients Rights team are currently investigating a number of cases involving delays in diagnosing a bleed to the brain. These include the tragic death of a 48-year-old mother of four who died  more than a year after the survey was conducted when a junior A&E doctor failed to spot obvious signs that she was suffering from a brain haemorrhage and sent her home without a CT scan.

Following a Freedom of Information request by the BBC, it was revealed this week that a nationwide telephone survey conducted on behalf of the NHS between October 2008 and February 2009 concluded that one in six A&E doctors interviewed had never heard of a ‘thunderclap headache’ - a medical term for a severe, sudden onset headache which is recognised as one of the classic symptom of a bleed to the brain (also known as a Subarachnoid Haemorrhage or SAH).

The anonymous survey, involving more than 170 registrars and senior house officers working in 67 A&E hospital units across England, also found that:

• Almost half (49%) of junior doctors and registrars wrongly believed that  it was better to delay a CT scan of the brain
• More than three quarters (77%) of junior doctors  would not  order  a CT scan and a lumbar puncture (both of which can detect a bleed on the brain) before discharging the patient from hospital

Jennifer Emerson, a solicitor specialising in Medical Law and Patient Rights at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office, is currently handling a number of cases involving delays in treating brain haemorrhages, including the family of 48 year old Caryl Hinton.

The mother-of-four from Wolverhampton collapsed and died on June 13th 2010 following a massive brain haemorrhage, just 16 days after being sent home from the city’s New Cross hospital.

During an inquest into Caryl’s death, the coroner heard that a junior doctor had missed vital warning signs and there were no written guidelines in place at the Accident and Emergency department to assist doctors with diagnosing the symptoms of a bleed on the brain.

Jennifer Emerson explained: “The findings of this survey which were carried out over three years ago, but which have only been made public this week, are of huge concern because we have no way of knowing what action, if any, has been taken to redress this fundamental aspect of clinical training.

“Inevitably the families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of a brain bleed will be asking if their lives might have been saved if the NHS had done more to urgently address these failings.

“At the time of Caryl Hinton’s death – more than a year after this survey was conducted - there were still no written guidelines available in her local A&E unit to help doctors identify the classic symptoms of a brain haemorrhage.  And more than two years after her death, the family has still not received any reassurance from the hospital that changes have been implemented.

“Given the alarming survey uncovered by the BBC, the lack of guidelines and training do not appear to be an isolated problem confined to one particular hospital or Trust. I am now writing to the Health Minister and will be urging him to act in the best interests of patients across the UK, by ensuring proper training is put in place to highlight and rectify any gaps in clinical knowledge.”

Speaking on behalf of the Hinton family, daughter, Kelly Thompson commented: “Our entire family has been devastated by what has happened. My Mum should not have died like this. She lived for her family and would do anything for us. 

“My Mum and I were very close, she was my best friend and I don’t think I will ever come to terms with the way she died.

“It would have been a simple step to put written guidelines and training in place for doctors and it could have prevented my mum’s death. I just hope the Trust will now look at what went wrong and that other hospitals across the country now take action to make sure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen to another family.”