Practice of Medicine


The Importance of an Accurate Problem List

Case Study  

Mr. Washington was a 58-year-old male who went to see Dr. Lincoln in January 2005 for a physical exam. The patient had a history of hypertension and hyperlipdemia controlled on an ACE Inhibitor and a statin. Upon a review of systems, the patient complained of bright red blood per rectum when he had a bowel movement. The physical exam was unremarkable and the patient’s stool guaiac was negative. The notes suggested a gastrointestinal referral for a colonoscopy. There was no separate referral form for a colonoscopy, however, which was required by the patient’s insurance. The patient’s lab tests were unremarkable except for a mild anemia, (HCT of 36).

The patient returned three times (over the next year and a half) for respiratory infections and intercurrent illnesses. The colonoscopy and bleeding were never mentioned in any of these visits. In July 2006, Mr. Washington presented to the ER with abdominal pain, fever, nausea and vomiting. The patient was admitted and underwent an exploratory laparotomy which revealed widespread cancer of the colon. He was eventually found to have stage IV cancer and was treated with chemotherapy. The patient expired in January 2007 and a lawsuit was filed.


There are multiple areas of weakness in defending the care of Dr. Lincoln.


Sometimes there is confusion around the difference between screening and symptomatic evaluations. There are a variety of guidelines and practices around the screening of asymptomatic patients. In this case, the medical assessment was correct. With the patient’s age group, the complaint of bleeding and anemia is best addressed with a colonoscopy. This was correctly suggested as colon pathology and would be the biggest concern in this patient.

Follow Up and Problem Lists

The hardest issue to defend is that there were several follow-up visits where the findings of anemia and bleeding were not discussed. Dr. Lincoln’s office did not use problem lists in its charts (paper at the time). An up-to-date problem list allows one to not have to rely on memory alone to address worrisome issues. The problem list was originally created by Lawrence Weed in the 1960s as part of his innovation around problem-oriented records. A simple idea, the problem list soon became a commonly accepted part of the medical record and is used in most medical records today. In the office, the problem list helps practitioners identify the most important health factors for each patient, allowing for customized care.

Beyond the broad categorical determinants, a point of debate concerns what diagnosed illnesses are worthy of the problem list. Currently, the decision of which problems are included or excluded remains largely the determination of practitioners. While one practitioner may argue that chicken pox is a relevant problem for assessing risk for shingles and the need for a chicken pox vaccination, another practitioner can debate that its inclusion adds little value and clutters the list.

The inclusion of an illness on the problem list likely will vary by patient as well. Exercise-induced asthma will be important information about a patient on several asthma medications, but it may not be important if the patient is not seeking treatment, takes no related medications, and is not affected by the illness in his or her daily life. Long-term undiagnosed symptoms also fall within this difficult category. A patient may complain of a cough for years, but have no clear diagnosis. This should be included on a good problem list. Problem lists are a key component of good documentation in a primary care office.

In addition to the lack of a problem list there are other system issues involved with this case study. Why wasn’t a referral generated? The physician was at a loss to explain this. Plus, there was no tickler file. If tests are suggested and are medically necessary, the office should have some system to track the completion of tests.


Finally, there is an issue around communication with the patient. If the physician had clearly explained the risk and concern he had, then some of the responsibility would have been on the patient. A reasonable patient told that they might have cancer could be expected to demand more workup. The lack of documentation of any such discussion adds to the difficulty in defending Dr. Lincoln's care.

Failure to Diagnose

Failure to diagnose or delay in diagnosis are the major causes for a lawsuit against a primary care physician. High-risk areas include heads (neurologic events, CVAs, and meningitis), hearts (the triple-rule-out), guts (missed appendicitis, ischemic bowel, etc.), severe infectious diseases, and cancer. Colon cancer is currently the most common cause for “delayed diagnosis of cancer” litigation followed by breast, prostate, lung and melanoma. Although lack of screening can sometimes be the cause of a lawsuit, it is most often the failure to diagnose in a symptomatic patient.

Action Points

  • Consider adding a problem list to each patient's chart;
  • Address undiagnosed symptoms on the problem list each visit;
  • Discuss with the patient items on the problem list; incorporate this information into each visit's Review of Systems; and
  • Have a tickler system in place to order and communicate results of diagnostic and therapeutic modalities.

Created by MagMutual from materials provided by COPIC as part of MagMutual and COPIC’s alliance to improve patient safety and quality of care for all of our PolicyOwners.  


Want to learn more?

Interested in how MagMutual can help?

View our products


The information provided in this resource does not constitute legal, medical or any other professional advice, nor does it establish a standard of care. This resource has been created as an aid to you in your practice. The ultimate decision on how to use the information provided rests solely with you, the PolicyOwner.