The myth of the infallible man

The SE Texas Record Jan. 23, 2010, 7:42am

Dr. Michael Peterson has learned an expensive lesson in defensive medicine. Had he practiced it, he might not have saved a life, but he might have avoided a costly payout in a malpractice suit.

Last August, Dr. Peterson agreed to a $150,000 settlement with the family of the late Stacy Meaux, who died of a heart attack in her home on Oct. 3, 2007, one day after chest pains sent her to the emergency room at Christus Hospital St. Mary in Port Arthur.

Meaux's mother subsequently filed suit, charging that Dr. Peterson and the hospital's nurses incorrectly diagnosed and treated her daughter.

The nurses had designated Meaux a "Level 3" the day before her fatal heart attack – i.e., not in danger of imminent death. Dr. Peterson treated her for irregular breathing, prescribed Captopril (used to treat hypertension and heart failure) and an inhalation treatment with Albuterol, and discharged her.

With hindsight, it may be easy to conclude that Dr. Peterson should have kept Stacy at the hospital longer, should have ordered more tests, should have done whatever it was he didn't do that might have prevented a heart attack a day later.

In court testimony, Dr. Peterson testified that with the benefit of hindsight he could have done things differently. At the time he concurred with the Level 3 risk rating and believed that Stacy's chest pains were "not of cardiac origin."

Did Stacy's condition deteriorate between her discharge and her death, or did Dr. Peterson make a mistake in diagnosis and treatment?

It's impossible to say. In the absence of demonstrable incompetence or negligence, all we have is second-guessing.

And it's worth noting that amidst all the Washington hysterics over the expense of health care -- including promises by certain politicians to lower them by brute force -- there's an unmentioned reality: the pressure to decide will almost always fall upon doctors like Michael Peterson, who must assess the costs and benefits of their judgments at moments like this one.

It's only natural for us to wonder if doctors and nurses did all they could to save our loved ones, but since when do we have no right to expect them to be infallible.

They make mistakes just as we do. For this they deserve empathy, not persecution.

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