Inadequate treatment of ectopic pregnancies puts women at risk of severe harm

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A report released today (5 March) by the NHS’s Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) has found that ectopic pregnancies are not being diagnosed quickly enough.

Ectopic pregnancies occur when a fertilised egg implants outside the uterus. When left undiagnosed, they can rupture and cause internal bleeding, putting women at risk of serious harm and death.

Around 12,000 women a year suffer an ectopic pregnancy in the UK, yet the inquiry found that there are significant flaws in the way that these pregnancies are treated.

Ectopic pregnancies can be difficult to diagnose, and symptoms are often mistaken for urinary tract infections. As a result, urgent treatment is often delayed.

The inquiry also found that a lack of consistent information was contributing to confusion and delays. Many women were discharged from the emergency room and were not told what signs and symptoms relating to ectopic pregnancies they should be looking out for.

According to NHS patient safety data, between April 2017 and August 2018 there were 30 missed ectopic pregnancies which led to severe harm.

A delayed diagnosis and treatment can significantly damage a woman’s chance of conceiving in the future and can also cause major psychological harm.

The HSIB report gave their recommendations to improve patient safety:

  • clinical information should be updated to include ectopic pregnancies as an alternative/serious diagnosis to urinary tract infections
  • all women should receive the same information when discharged from the emergency department to avoid confusion
  • expert guidance should be provided on the type and level of information that early pregnancy units should collect to identify those at risk
  • assessments on early pregnancy services should be included, especially relating to potential complications in CQC inspections.

Kate Smith, a solicitor in the medical negligence team at Ashtons Legal, comments: “It is shocking to read that the HSIB inquiry has identified flaws in respect of misdiagnoses of ectopic pregnancies. This is a serious concern as it can lead to fatalities if not identified soon enough or ongoing psychological trauma for the women that have been through such an ordeal. Now that the HSIB has identified and published their findings, hopefully there will be a real effect to ensure there is an improvement in patient safety and hospitals reflect on their practices to reduce these figures and stop women having to suffer the potentially tragic consequences of ectopic pregnancies.”  


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