'Looks well' – doctor's verdict after 'cursory' check on patient who died of meningitis
A DOCTOR was severely criticised by a judge yesterday for failing to properly examine a woman who died just hours later from meningitis.
Catherine Learmont was found dead in bed by her 14- year-old daughter on Boxing Day 1999. She had been sent home from a doctor's surgery after being told she had a viral infection "which would get worse before it got better".
Lord Uist ruled the doctor, Fiona Vernon, was professionally negligent and her examination "cursory and superficial". He awarded Lauren Learmont, now 22, and her brother Scott, 24, nearly 140,000 in damages.
Mrs Learmont, of Dumfries, feared she had meningitis and spent most of Christmas Day in her bedroom complaining of a rash, stiff neck, stomach pains and headaches, which are signs of the potentially fatal disease.
On Christmas morning, the children took their mother's presents to her bedside but she said she just wanted to lie in bed and would open them later.
Lauren later told the Court of Session in Edinburgh she had gone to check on her mother next day: "That's when I found my mum. My mum was dead."
Miss Learmont, of Dumfries, said: "Only my mum looked after me. We didn't see our dad."
She told the court her mother had said she was not feeling too well on Christmas Eve and went to bed.
Mrs Learmont, who held down two part-time cleaning jobs, had done a "tumbler" test on her rash in her daughter's absence to see if the spots disappeared, a standard test for the illness. Miss Learmont told the court that her mother had said: "I hope I've not got meningitis."
The family were so concerned that her son phoned the surgery and all three set off by car on Christmas night to an out-of-hours surgery, where Mrs Learmont was seen by Dr Vernon, the judge was told.
Lord Uist said he found that the patient had presented at the surgery with symptoms which should have led to meningitis being suspected.
He said: "It follows that Dr Vernon ought to have suspected meningitis, prescribed an antibiotic blind and referred Mrs Learmont to the nearby Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, in which event Mrs Learmont would have survived."
He added: "As Dr Vernon did not refer Mrs Learmont, she was professionally negligent."
Lord Uist said he had concluded that the consultation between the GP and patient lasted about five minutes. It was "short, cursory and superficial".
A note of the diagnosis made by Dr Vernon included the remarks: "Looks well. Re-assured – early viral infection and observe."
Dr Vernon, a Glasgow University graduate who has been a trainer for GPs since 2002, had had cases of meningitis before.
"I told her to keep an eye on it, get some rest and take some paracetamol and if anything else developed let us know. She wasn't given any medication at the time," she said.
"In my opinion Mrs Learmont was not too unwell. I definitely did not think she had meningitis as the symptoms did not support it. I was extremely surprised to hear, on 27 December, 1999, that Mrs Learmont had died and was very upset by this."
A spokeswoman for the General Medical Council said last night: "Dr Vernon has full registration with the GMC. All cases are looked at individually."
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