Practice of Medicine


Avoiding the Misdiagnosis of Ectopic Pregnancy

By: Bill Kanich, MD
Executive Summary

Early ectopic pregnancies mimic other abdominal and gynecologic problems and are frequently misdiagnosed as spontaneous abortions. Repeat ED visits should trigger a suspicion for alternative diagnoses. An ectopic pregnancy can be difficult to diagnosis on clinical grounds alone and there should be a low threshold for further testing or consultations.

Recommended Actions
  • Thoroughly document the suspected diagnosis and reasons your professional opinion does not include a diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy.
  • Take and document the patient’s vital signs and pain level before every discharge.
  • Ensure follow-up or repeat testing when a patient complains that symptoms are worsening.

The Case

A 39-year-old woman presented to the ED with a complaint of vaginal bleeding. She stated that she was 4-6 weeks pregnant and had been spotting on and off for the past two weeks without pain. She did not have an obstetrician yet.

She was triaged as 3-Urgent. Her admission vital signs were: T 98.9; BP 116/57; HR 84; R 14; SaO2 of 99% on room air. Her urine pregnancy test was positive and her quantitative hCG was 7194 mIU/mL. The transvaginal ultrasound revealed “an enlarged extensively leiomyomatous uterus without evident intrauterine or ectopic pregnancy identified.” The radiologist’s impression was, “Bleeding vaginal; spontaneous abortion a possibility, other etiologies not excluded.”

The ED physician reviewed the patient’s prior medical records and discussed the results from the visit with the consultant OB. The ED physician wrote that he did not suspect ectopic pregnancy, but thought that the patient had likely had a spontaneous abortion. The ED physician discharged the patient in “stable” condition with instructions for threatened miscarriage and a follow-up appointment with the on-call OB the next day.

The patient didn’t make her scheduled OB appointment. Instead, three days later, she returned to the ED with severe cramping pain and still spotting blood; T 99F; BP 139/77; HR 90; R 19. Her hCG had risen to 10,953. She was seen by a different ED physician, who reviewed the notes from the previous ED visit and diagnosed a spontaneous abortion. The patient was given morphine and discharged on Percocet. The second ED physician did not perform a pelvic examination, nor did he order a repeat transvaginal ultrasound. The patient’s vital signs were not documented at discharge.

Two weeks later the patient underwent a laparoscopic right salpingectomy due to a right tubal ectopic pregnancy.


The plaintiff alleged that the second ED physician misdiagnosed an ectopic pregnancy, resulting in the loss of a tube and reducing her chance of a future pregnancy. The plaintiff also named the hospital, alleging that the nursing staff fell below the applicable standard of care by not checking and recording vital signs at the conclusion of the second ED visit.


It appears that the second ED physician relied on the diagnosis of spontaneous abortion from the patient’s first ED visit, despite a rising hCG. The literature describes the classic triad of abdominal pain, amenorrhea and irregular vaginal bleeding occurring only in roughly half of ectopic pregnancy cases. Early ectopic pregnancies mimic other abdominal and gynecologic problems, and they are frequently misdiagnosed as spontaneous abortions. The absence of an intrauterine pregnancy on ultrasound in a symptomatic woman should be considered an ectopic pregnancy until proven otherwise.[1]

Experts who reviewed the case believed the second ED physician breached the standard of care when he did not admit the patient to the hospital given her worsening symptoms and rising hCG. The ED physician’s documentation was incomplete in that he did not mention threatened or completed abortion. It is always important to “write what you are thinking.” It was also unclear to the expert reviewers whether the physician attempted to contact the patient’s new OB physician or call in another OB consult. This could be considered a potential failure in coordination of care.

At the second ED visit, the experts were most concerned that a repeat transvaginal ultrasound was not performed in light of the patient’s presentation. In addition, there was no documented pelvic exam. Repeat ED visits, especially within 72 hours, should trigger a high index of suspicion concerning alternative diagnoses. In this case, an ectopic pregnancy can be a difficult diagnosis to make on clinical grounds alone and there should be a low threshold for further testing or consultations.[2]

Both expert reviewers opined that there is no way to know if the tube would have been saved if the ectopic pregnancy was diagnosed during the second ED visit. If the tube was saved, there would still be a potential for high risk pregnancy with a 30% chance that an ectopic pregnancy would occur again. The ED nurses did not document the patient’s vital signs and pain level at discharge, which was problematic for the hospital’s defense.


The hospital and ED physician both agreed to a settlement with the plaintiff.

Lessons Learned
  • Consider providing physicians additional training on the symptoms and common indications of an ectopic pregnancy.
  • Consider providing ED physicians with a checklist of questions to ask patients who present and may fit an uncommon diagnosis such as an ectopic pregnancy.
  • Ensure that providers are following proper protocols for each discharge and adjusting for any unforeseen problems as necessary.
Potential Damages

While misdiagnosing an ectopic pregnancy occurs relatively infrequently, failing to diagnose or delays in diagnosis are generally common allegations of medical liability claims. Physicians run the risk of negligence claims surrounding an ectopic pregnancy if they fail to provide diligent and coordinated care that results in further complications or injury to the patient because of delay in care.

[1] Diagnosis and Management of Ectopic Pregnancy.

[2] Topics in Primary Care Medicine: Early Diagnosis of Ectopic Pregnancy, 


1. Early ectopic pregnancies mimic other problems and are frequently misdiagnosed.
2. Failing to contact the patient’s OB or call an OB consult when a patient reports to the ED with a complaint of vaginal bleeding and severe cramping can be a potential failure in coordination of care.
3. Repeat visits to the ED should trigger a suspicion for an alternative diagnosis.


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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.