Medical Malpractice Liability for Pulmonary Embolism

Health care providers may be liable if a patient dies or suffers a serious injury due to an undiagnosed pulmonary embolism.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a sudden blockage in the pulmonary arteries (blood vessels that pump blood from your heart to your lungs). Most PEs are caused by blood clots. According to the American Lung Association, PEs affect around 900,000 people in the U.S. every year.

PEs can be life-threatening. You may be able to sue a health care provider who failed to diagnose or properly treat a PE for medical malpractice.

Risk Factors for Pulmonary Embolism

Most PEs are caused by blood clots that develop in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis, called "deep vein thrombosis" (DVT). If untreated, deep vein clots may break loose and travel to the lungs, where they can block the normal flow of blood in the lung arteries.

Many factors can increase a person's risk of developing DVT and PE, including:

  • a prior history of PEs
  • inactivity (such as prolonged periods of bed rest or air travel)
  • certain medical conditions (for example, heart disease, many cancers, lung disease, COVID-19)
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • supplemental estrogen
  • pregnancy, and
  • family history.

Common Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

Signs and symptoms of PI vary depending on the size of the clot and whether a patient has underlying health conditions. According to the American Lung Assocation, the most common symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • cough
  • leg pain or swelling
  • back pain
  • profuse sweating, and
  • blueish lips or nails.

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism

Diagnosing a PE can be difficult. Many PE symptoms are also symptoms of other conditions, like a heart attack. If a medical provider suspects that a patient has a PE, the doctor should ask about the patient's medical history, including PE risk factors, and do a physical exam.

The medical provider may also order tests, including:

  • CTPA (an X-ray that can analyze blood vessels)
  • Pulmonary V/Q (a scan that shows airflow and blood flow in the lungs)
  • D-Dimer blood tests (tests that detect clot formation)
  • Pulmonary angiography (an X-ray of blood vessels leading to and from the lungs)
  • X-rays of the heart and lungs to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, and
  • ultrasound of the legs to look for clots in the veins.

Treating Pulmonary Embolism

Prompt treatment of PE is essential to prevent serious complications or death. Blood thinners (anticoagulants) are the most common treatment for blood clots in the lungs. Most patients have to take blood thinners for three months, but others have to continue taking medication indefinitely. Blood thinners have serious side effects, including a risk of excessive bleeding (hemorrhage). Health care providers must decide on a case-by-case basis, whether the benefits of prescribing blood thinners outweigh the risks.

For example, a doctor almost certainly would prescribe blood thinners for a patient with a prior history of blood clots who is scheduled for a total knee replacement surgery. But if an otherwise healthy 20-year-old patient comes to the hospital for arthroscopic knee surgery, blood thinners are probably unnecessary.

When blood thinners aren't an option, health care providers may recommend a surgically implanted inferior vena cava (IVC) filter. But, like all medical procedures, IVC filters come with their own set of risks and potential complications.

Proving Pulmonary Embolism Malpractice

Most PE malpractice lawsuits are based on the theory that a health care provider misdiagnosed a PE or improperly delayed treatment. Patients essentially have to prove that the health care provider's actions (or inactions) fell short of the "medical standard of care" and caused the patient harm.

The medical standard of care is defined as the care that a similarly-trained professional in the same medical community would provide. Proving the medical standard of care typically requires the testimony of a medical expert witness.

Examples of PE-related medical malpractice include:

  • a surgeon who fails to provide adequate follow-up care and misses a PE
  • an emergency room doctor who fails to order tests, like a CTPA or ultrasound, that could have diagnosed DVT or PE
  • a doctor who fails to prescribe preventative blood thinners while a patient is on extended bed rest, and
  • a doctor who fails to prescribe blood thinners when a patient at risk for a PE is discharged from the hospital.

It's not enough to prove that the health care provider failed to make the right diagnosis or delayed treatment. Patients also have to show that the provider's substandard care caused them harm. Common injuries in PE malpractice cases include death, lung tissue damage, and excessive bleeding from treatment with blood thinners.

Talk to a Lawyer

Medical malpractice cases are difficult to win. You'll want a lawyer on your side who understands complex medical and legal issues and knows medical experts with experience in pulmonary embolism malpractice cases.

Learn more about finding the right lawyer for your medical malpractice claim. Don't delay. Each state has a deadline for filing medical malpractice cases, called the "statute of limitations." If you miss the deadline, you'll lose your chance to get compensation for your PE-related injury and other losses. You can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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