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  • Independent review of pulmonary embolism fatalities in England & Wales – recent trends, excess deaths, their causes and risk management concerns (December 2022, Tim Edwards)

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    • UK
    • Reports and articles
    • New
    • Health and care staff, Patient safety leads, Researchers/academics


    Pulmonary embolism is the third most common cause of cardiovascular death worldwide after stroke and heart attack. Although life-threatening, when diagnosed promptly survival rates are good. 

    This report, authored by risk expert Tim Edwards and published by Patient Safety Learning, highlights serious and widespread patient safety concerns relating to the misdiagnosis of pulmonary embolisms. 

    Drawing on existing data, freedom of information requests and his mother’s case, he outlines nine calls for action to improve pulmonary embolism care. 


    Key findings from the report:

    • There were 400 excess deaths attributable to pulmonary embolism misdiagnosis from March 2021 to April 2022 in England and Wales. 
    • In parts of England and Wales the number of deaths due to pulmonary embolism were almost 3 times the national average.
    • The clinical guidelines and diagnostic processes used in England and Wales are out of step with our European counterparts and, in Jenny’s case, were not used correctly. 
    • Clinical teams too often lack the training, expertise and/or equipment to deliver safe and effective pulmonary embolism care. 

    Commenting on the report, Tim Edwards said:

    "My research found that there are hundreds of people who, like my mother Jenny, died from pulmonary embolism following misdiagnosis. It's vital we learn from these deaths, and the errors that have occurred, so we can take action to improve pulmonary embolism care. By publishing this report, I hope to start a dialogue that leads to positive change, so others do not suffer the loss of a loved one as we have."

    Helen Hughes, Chief Executive of Patient Safety Learning said:

    “This new report highlights serious patient safety concerns relating to the diagnosis of pulmonary embolisms. Urgent action is now needed to ensure that guidelines and diagnostic processes are up to date and that clinicians have the resources they need to deliver safe and effective care. It is also vital that we increase awareness of the key symptoms of pulmonary embolisms among both healthcare professionals and the wider public. Patient Safety Learning are proud to be supporting Tim and his campaign for improvement in pulmonary embolism care and to reduce avoidable deaths.”

    Calls for action

    The report includes nine calls for action to improve pulmonary embolism care:

    1 Raise the level of suspicion for pulmonary embolism – given a surge in PE-related deaths, greater awareness amongst frontline emergency department and other clinicians of the importance of considering the possibility of PE during their diagnostic decision-making. More general training alongside specialisms and simulation to support practice and development of decision-making skills. Could the NEWS scoring system be calibrated to consider the aggregate of scores over a 5-6 hour period is one area for further discussion. 

    2 Buy-in for clinical guidelines - clinical guidance is only as valuable as, firstly, its validity and there is evidence that the NHS is not applying pulmonary embolism guidance considered best practice in comparable European countries and, secondly, adherence, which is evidenced as inconsistent at best and worst, ignored. This report calls for a change, not just a review, of NICE clinical guideline NG158 covering pulmonary embolism diagnosis. 

    3 Avoidance of high-risk appetite - to achieve operating standards and meet financial incentives, risk appetite should not be a variable that can be compromised or amended. A compliance metric tracking whether clinical guidelines were successfully followed could be included as a diagnostic tool used as part of the Get it Right First Time (GIRFT) initiative 8 to ensure CTPA scanning for pulmonary embolism is not under-used. 

    4 Ensure radiology departments have the appropriate resources - so they can deliver a safe and effective service. Currently 41% of clinical radiologists do not have the right equipment 3 and the levels of scanners is less than half that in France and a quarter of that in Germany. There are also personnel shortages. There needs to be a plan in place to address these shortages. 

    5 National consistency, compliance and risk management - exploration of the underlying causes of regional variation, whether from differentials in resources or processes. Ensure oversight approaches/audits are suitably embedded within existing clinical governance systems. 

    6 Patient engagement - meaningful engagement with those affected when carrying out an incident investigation to ensure family members’ expertise is harnessed and that they are treated as partners in the learning response (where they so wish), not just in setting the terms of reference. 

    7 Independence - while independent authors may contribute to investigations, independent subject-matter experts are not always involved therefore undermining the integrity of any report conclusions. NHS England’s 2015 Serious Incident Framework guidelines require independent contributors to ensure objectivity and so clearly there may need to be a review of how 'contributors' is defined and how this process may better ensure lessons are being suitably learnt. 

    8 Knowledge sharing – effective, timely dissemination of learning from a serious incident investigation carried out in one organisation across the NHS to other organisations which may experience a similar type of PE misdiagnosis incident in the future. Ensure Clinical Knowledge Summaries providing the latest research and clinical findings are sufficiently disseminated and actioned by frontline emergency department and clinical staff in a timely fashion. 

    9 Public awareness – extension of existing awareness campaign advising those at risk of the symptoms to look out for and when to seek medical attention

    You can access the report in full via the attached PDF document below. 

    Further reading


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