November 17, 2012

Problem with Medical Protocols (and Lawsuits Because of Them)

Over the past decade working in hospitals, I've seen the proliferation of "established procedures and protocols" for literally everything under the sun...

• Chest Pain Protocol
• Discharge Protocol
• Pneumonia Protocol
• Stroke Protocol
etc, etc, etc

Protocols are essentially standing orders that are supposed to be implemented whenever a given medical situation occurs. It is supposed to follow best evidence-based practices and make it easy for healthcare personnel know what to do without thinking to hard (akin to a checklist a pilot performs before flying to ensure they did not forget something).

The problem with protocols are that it can be made so detailed as to become worthlessly bloated. To use an analogy, take the protocol, "Going Shopping Protocol."

Protocol A (Simple):
1) Make grocery list
2) Drive to supermarket
3) Pickup and purchase items on grocery list
4) Come back home

Protocol B (Detailed):
1) Pickup #2 pencil
2) Sharpen pencil to appropriate point using pencil sharpener model 15-231
3) Test pencil to ensure proper writing ability
4) Obtain 3x4 inch index card
5) Write shopping item #1 on index card using pencil (from steps #1-3)
etc, etc, etc

Now when dealing with something as complex as medicine, protocols can be a godsend or hopeless depending on how it is written and who uses it.

And, that's where protocols become problematic.

Make a protocol too detailed, and it becomes bloated to the point of being useless, especially when dealing with time-sensitive medical problems.

Take for example something as simple as "Chest Pain Protocol." Orders for EKG, aspirin, IV fluids, sublingual nitroglycerin, and morphine seem obvious (assumption being heart attack), but what if we are dealing with a 10 years old child who got punched in the stomach by a bully? What about a stabbing into the chest?

Does that mean there needs to be multiple branch-points explicitly addressed in the protocol to handle every single possible scenario of chest pain under the sun at any age for every possible scenario?

Clearly, the answer is "NO"!

So protocols are made with several assumptions:

1)  A general level of medical competence of healthcare professionals
2 ) Healthcare professionals are already familiar with a given protocol and knows when to appropriately activate it
3) Protocols are deliberately made to be not too specific as it is understood that there is variability in the care of patients. Protocols can not and should not be applied cookie cutter to every patient as there are nuances that the protocol leaves to the judgement of the doctor.

Unfortunately, by making protocols to generalized, it does open up the possibility of lawsuits.

Take an ongoing case in Georgia where the medical director of an emergency room is being sued for professional negligence in the death of a woman from a heart attack... because of a chest pain protocol he wrote. Note that this medical director NEVER provided any direct medical care, did not have an established patient-physician relationship, and was not even in the hospital when the woman came into the ER. [link]

So is the solution to avoid having any protocols in place to avoid lawsuits? Sorry... NOT having a protocol in place can also be subject to a lawsuit. In 2000, a hospital was sued for either failing to follow established anesthesia procedures or protocols or failing to have any established procedures or protocols in place. [link]

So what to do?

Well, getting sued is a risk that is inherent to the medical field, especially whenever there is a bad outcome.

As such, the default action taken by physicians and hospital administrators are to minimize or spread the risk. How?

• Have as many different physicians write-up a given protocol that is signed off by everybody (spreading the risk)
• Avoid positions of responsibility (default scapegoat for lawsuits)
• Involve many physicians in the care of a patient (spreading or transferring the risk)
• Have protocols, but do not depend on them (clinical judgement trumps protocol).
• Have MANY documented training sessions on how protocols are to be used and discuss weaknesses and strengths of them

UPSON COUNTY HOSP., INC. v. HEAD 540 S.E.2d 626 (2000) 246 Ga. App. 386 UPSON COUNTY HOSPITAL, INC. v. HEAD. No. A00A1601. Court of Appeals of Georgia. October 13, 2000.

Gaulden v. Green, No. A12A1872 (Ga. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2012)
Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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