Patient With Ebola Sent Home From ER

By Kim Smiley

If you have been paying any attention to the news lately you have heard that a patient was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States for the first time.  The fact that the patient sought treatment at an emergency room (ER) and was sent home is particularly alarming and people are naturally very interested in how such a thing could happen.

The media has been flooded with breaking news about this case. In situations like this, keeping track of what information is current and reliable and what is already outdated or has been determined to be inaccurate can be a moving target.  A Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis, can be useful in these situations as a way to document the available information.  A Cause Map visually lays out the causes that contributed to an issue in an intuitive format.  It is relatively easy to quickly expand a Cause Map as more information becomes available.

Generally, a Cause Map is built in an Excel workbook so old versions of the Cause Map can be easily saved as different tabs and that the evolution of the investigation isn’t lost.  Additionally, it’s easy to add evidence supporting each individual cause onto the Cause Map itself so that all relevant information is documented in one location and easily referenced.  There are often things that are being considered that may have played a role in a problem, but lack evidence to determine whether or not they are actually relevant to the investigation.  This situation can be documented on a Cause Map by listing the potential cause and adding a question mark to show that a cause is being considered, but that it needs more evidence.  If that cause is later determined to not have been a factor it can be crossed out to document that it has been considered so that no work is duplicated.

So what information is known at this point about the patient with Ebola who was sent home from the ER?  A man has been diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, Texas.  Statements by friends and family indicate that he helped transport a sick woman prior to traveling to the US.  It’s not clear whether he knew that she had Ebola or not.  After being exposed to Ebola, he passed through the airport screening because he did not have a fever at that time and he did not indicate possible exposure on the required questionnaire.   He arrived in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 2014.

His family has stated that he started feeling ill on the 24th and he sought treatment at a hospital on September 26.  He was released with a prescription for antibiotics.  Ebola can be difficult to diagnose because the early symptoms, such as fever and muscle pains, are very nonspecific.  The only information the hospital would have had to indicate that patient might have Ebola is his travel history.  Statements by the hospital indicate that the patient told the nurse he had recently been in Liberia.  The travel history information doesn’t seem to have been known by physicians that treated the patient.  Initial statements by the hospital indicated that issues with electronic health records may have played a role in the confusion, but later released more information that modified their position.  Exactly how the risk of Ebola was missed isn’t clear and this portion of the Cause Map will need to be expanded as more information is available.

It is not shocking that an Ebola case would be diagnosed in the US with travelers still arriving from West Africa and the long incubation period.  As long as Ebola is still a problem in Africa, US hospitals could see more patients with Ebola and need to be prepared for the possibility.  But it is concerning that someone who had recently traveled from West Africa with a fever wouldn’t trigger any alarms at an ER.   Individuals with Ebola must be quickly identified and isolated In order to prevent the spread of the deadly disease and hospitals in the US need to ensure that no other potential Ebola patients fall through the cracks.

Click on “Download PDF” above to see an initial intermediate level Cause Map for this example.