A beautiful, supremely talented young friend of our family recently fell victim to a terrible medical mistake. Newly married, she was having some pelvic pain and bleeding, and the doctor who saw her diagnosed a probable ectopic pregnancy — an embryo that develops outside the womb. Concerned that such pregnancies can turn life-threatening, the doctor prescribed the standard treatment: methotrexate, a drug used for chemotherapy and to help induce abortions.
When our friend returned to be checked a few days later, the imaging revealed that in fact, the pregnancy had not been ectopic; it was in place, in her uterus. But because she had taken the methotrexate, a known cause of birth defects, her pregnancy was doomed. She soon miscarried. What may have been a perfectly healthy pregnancy had been ended by well-meant medical treatment.
I assumed her horrifying case was an exceedingly rare medical fluke — until now. A paper just out in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine shows that such misdiagnosed pregnancies are part of a pattern — a pattern that needs to be changed. “Considerable evidence suggests that mistakes such as these are far from rare,” it says.
When I told our friend’s story to the paper’s lead author, Dr. Peter Doubilet, he responded that he knows of “dozens and dozens and dozens of similar cases that have come to lawsuits, and that’s probably the tip of the iceberg.” There is even a Facebook group, Misdiagnosed Ectopic, Given Methotrexate, run by a mother given methotrexate whose daughter was born with major birth defects.
The New England Journal of Medicine paper stems from a panel of international experts who resolved to change medical practice to stop such misdiagnoses. I spoke with Dr. Doubilet, who is senior vice chair of radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. Our conversation, lightly edited:
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the problem, what’s the upshot for women of child-bearing age? What’s your message to them?
When a woman gets pregnant, a number of serious complications can occur early in pregnancy, including miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. When a doctor diagnoses these problems within the first two to three weeks after her missed period, it’s very traumatic to the patient and it’s critically important that the woman and the doctor are confident that the diagnosis is correct, because the steps that will be taken would harm a normal pregnancy if one is present.
It’s become apparent over the past two to three years that errors in diagnosis of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy occur more frequently than they should, and that’s why we put together a multi-specialty panel of expert doctors from radiology, obstetrics-gynecology and emergency medicine to come up with new, more stringent guidelines for diagnosing these complications, taking into account the most recent research on the subject.
And just to simplify, when a woman in very early pregnancy has been told that it appears that she has an ectopic pregnancy or a failed pregnancy, it would very rarely be overly risky — and often be wise — to wait a couple of days and be sure of the diagnosis before acting?
Yes. That’s a very important message. In 2010, I, together with Dr. Carol Benson, wrote an editorial in The Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine entitled “First, do no harm to early pregnancies,” and that was the key message: Unless the doctor is sure that the woman has a miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy, the doctor should err on the side of waiting, as long as the woman is stable and shows no signs of serious internal bleeding.
If the patient meets definite criteria for a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, there’s no reason to wait, but if there’s any degree of uncertainty, the prudent thing is to wait. Continue reading