There have been some interesting and important discussions flying across the web in recent days on the issue of protocols in helping to reduce variation and reduce the incidence of harm to patients. My mistake in the debate was assuming that medical leaders would be reasonable about how protocols should and should not be used.
A doctor friend, highly committed to patient safety, notes:
My point about the protocols is that I have been chastised for not following them in situations where it was blatantly obvious that they did not apply. (“The protocol is there for a reason.”)
The chastisement comes not from hospital administrators, but from clinician leaders in the doctor’s own department:
We just got another email scolding us for not following the “colorectal pathway” sufficiently. One of the provisions of that pathway, for example, is strict limitation of iv fluids, sometimes difficult to “comply” when patients are severely dehydrated from their bowel preps, particularly the elderly.
The initial goals were to decrease opiate use and decrease PACU LOS, both worthy goals, but we’re all annoyed at being beaten over the head with them and getting our hands slapped if we deviate, even with good reason.
It’s ironic that on the one hand we are extolling the virtues of gene-based individualized therapies, but on the other hand we are trying to pigeon-hole every patient into a standardized protocol.
This is disappointing in so many ways, but especially because the solution is in the hands of the profession. Brent James discussed the sensible application of protocols to clinical process improvement, as employed in the Intermountain Health system, several years ago:
The concept of “shared baselines” came to rule:
1 — Select a high priority clinical process;
2 — Create evidence-based best practice guidelines;
3 — Build the guidelines into the flow of clinical work;
4 — Use the guidelines as a shared baseline, with doctors free to vary them based on individual patient needs;
5 — Meanwhile, learn from and (over time) eliminate variation arising from the professionals, while retain variation arising from patients.
Note that this approach demands [my emphasis] that doctors modify shared protocols on the basis of patient needs. The aim is not to step between doctors and their patients. This is very different from the free form of patient care that exists generally in medicine. Notes Brent, “We pay for our personal autonomy with the lives of our patients. This is indefensible.” The approach used at Intermountain values variation based on the patient, not the physician.
I guess my friend’s experience is one example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. I think the rigid approach being employed in that doctor’s hospital and elsewhere is the result of little or no training in clinical process improvement in medical schools and in graduate medical education. We have often been told by residents, during our Telluride patient safety workshops, that they get more exposure to matters of clinical process improvement and high reliability systems in four days than in their seven previous years of medical training.
Brent expressed hope back in 2011:
Brent is optimistic because he has seen this philosophy of learning how to improve patient care extend to more and more doctors and hospitals around the country. He views it as providing the answer to the rising cost of care, and he is excited about the potential. He concludes that this is a “glorious time” to be in medicine because it is the “first time in 100 years” that doctors have a chance to institute fundamental change in the practice of medicine.
Thus far, such change only exists in certain islands of excellence, and it clearly takes energy and thoughtfulness to sustain it even in those places.
Paul Levy is the former CEO of BIDMC and blogs at Not Running a Hospital, where an earlier version of this post appeared.