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Failure to treat hypertension

Presentation and physician action

A young man came to his internal medicine physician over several years for various symptom-focused visits. On the majority of these visits the patient’s blood pressure readings were elevated. Two months after his last exam, the patient died suddenly at home. He was 31 years of age. The cause of death was determined to be a complete occlusion of the left anterior descending artery (LAD).

Autopsy findings were inconsistent with hypertensive coronary artery disease, as there was no heart enlargement, dilation of the left ventricle, pitting of the kidney surfaces, or dilation of the aorta. The pathologist did not see any evidence of end-stage organ damage caused by untreated hypertension. The pathologist concluded that the cause of death was from atherosclerotic plaque becoming disrupted and traveling to the LAD, causing occlusion and a fatal arrhythmia.

Both the pathologist and consulting cardiologist agreed this heart attack could not have been prevented since the patient did not suffer from hypertension-induced coronary artery disease.

 The defendant, while providing reasonable episodic care, did not address the patient’s elevated blood pressure. The physician says he instructed the patient to watch his diet, but this was not documented in the records. The physician did not order any lab work or evaluations addressing the hypertension.



The patient’s family filed a lawsuit against the physician for failure to diagnose and treat hypertension. It was further alleged that the physician failed to order proper evaluations and lab work and failed to provide the patient with precautions and advice on lifestyle changes. The plaintiffs argued that had the physician treated the patient’s hypertension, it would have prevented the sudden heart attack and death.


Legal implications

The patient came to the physician nine times over an 8-year period for various symptoms. During this time the patient never described any chest pain or dyspnea that would have increased the suspicion of heart disease in such a young patient. However, high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, and the patient’s initial blood pressure reading was 164/110 mm Hg. Although the blood pressure read­ings fluctuated, consultants felt the patient had stage 1 hypertension.

Though most consultants agreed stage 1 hypertension does not require immediate medication, they were critical of the physician’s inaction (not taking repeat read­ings, considering family history of hypertension, documenting in the medical chart discussions of hypertension counseling, conducting lab studies for lipid profiles and other tests).

Most defense consultants agreed that it was a judgment call to treat this young man for borderline hypertension, and the lack of hypertension treatment had no bearing on the sudden MI. However, they all stated that the patient should have been more closely monitored with regular blood pressure checks, diagnostic labs, and counseled on modi­fying diet and lifestyle.

Making this case more difficult to defend was the physician’s admission at deposition that he was not clear on the standard of care in treating hypertension.



This case was settled on behalf of the internal medicine physician.


Risk management considerations

Incomplete documentation often hinders the defense of lawsuits. Each patient encoun­ter should include the chief complaint, examination findings and prior diagnostic tests results (if applicable), assessment, clinical impression or diagnosis, and the plan of care. Not only did this physician not support his clinical impression of the patient’s blood pres­sure, the only acknowledgement of the blood pressure readings was a circle around the numbers.

Completed histories are the basis for patient information. It is not unusual to have a pa­tient complete a questionnaire before the appointment as this helps expedite the patient visit; however, reviewing the form and completing areas left blank may provide additional insight. By initialing and dating each page, a physician can provide verification that the information was reviewed.

Some consultants believed that, given the patient’s family history of hypertension, medi­cations should have been started immediately. Most consultants agreed that education on dietary and lifestyle changes was more important the first year. Unfortunately, the patient’s chart supported the plaintiffs’ view that the physician failed to advise the patient of his cardiovascular and hypertension risk factors.

Physicians can make themselves more defensible by obtaining a complete his­tory, documenting each patient encounter, and documenting any education provided to the patient. This assists both the patient in making informed choices and the physician, should the patient allege failure to diagnose and treat.