GPs warned over meningitis care
GPs are being urged to be alert to the signs of meningitis, after the Medical Defence Union (MDU) revealed that it has paid out £22 million since 1998 in legal claims for failures and delays in diagnosing the infection.
The MDU said that although meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia claims account for only 2% of cases notified by its members, they account for 15% of the payments made to settle claims.
Payments have ranged from £7,000 to £6.8m, which was paid on behalf of a GP member in 2009. Since 1998, five further claims have been settled in excess of one million pounds.
The Union is now calling for GPs to review their procedure for managing patients with suspected meningitis and has highlighted the importance of using the recent NICE guidelines on the management of bacterial meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in children to improve care.
The guideline, published in June 2010, says prompt recognition of the signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis and meningococcal disease is the key to preventing the deaths of children and young people who contract the diseases.
The guideline stresses the importance of healthcare professionals being aware of clinical features that can be used to help identify children and young people presenting with possible bacterial meningitis. Identifying infection due to bacterial meningitis is particularly important because prompt recognition and referral for emergency admission are essential in order to initiate antibiotic treatment and therefore prevent unnecessary deaths.
Dr Karen Roberts, MDU medico-legal adviser said: "It is every GP's worst nightmare that they may miss or delay a diagnosis, not least because they are aware of the potentially serious consequences for the patient.
"Meningitis is a difficult infection to diagnose, particularly in young children, because patients often present with non-specific symptoms in the early stages. Added to this, patients can go downhill quickly so it is important that doctors remain alert to the importance of recognising and treating the illness early on.
"But there are steps GPs can take to try to lessen their chances of missing a diagnosis. These include: ensuring they exclude a diagnosis of meningitis, even if they only consider it briefly; conducting and documenting a full clinical, or if appropriate, a telephone assessment of the patient; listening to patients' and parents' concerns; arranging a reassessment if necessary; and ensuring patients and parents know what to do if a patient becomes more unwell in the meantime.
"There are also a number of helpful guidelines such as the recently published NICE guidelines on the management of bacterial meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in children, which includes a checklist of signs and symptoms of the infection."
4 August 2010
This page was last updated: 15 November 2010