Reproduced with permission from General Surgery News, published in the September 2017.
Protocols and pathways are supposed to make patient care more efficient and cost-effective. Protocols promote uniformity in patient management and hopefully promote safety. However, protocols and pathways can cause doctors to stop thinking.
As an example, my patient had an extended right hepatic lobectomy and bile duct resection for cholangiocarcinoma. He was older and also had a slightly enlarged prostate. His operation went well and his postoperative course was smooth except for a low-grade fever due to atelectasis. On postoperative day 4, his epidural pain and urinary catheters were removed. He developed urinary retention, and the resident and the nurse warned him about an impending “straight cath” if he did not void his bladder soon. No doubt this stressed him out. And I am relatively sure that the recently discontinued epidural pain medication allowed for the return of his pain, with worsening urinary retention.
As a result of pain from the full bladder and the incision, as well as the threat of the insertion of a Foley catheter, the patient’s heart rate jumped to 110. The increased pain also made it a little more painful to breathe and that right subcostal scar is no picnic either. Yes, you guessed it: atelectasis, and now a fever to 100.4.
A little light went off in our hospital computers and the sepsis protocol lights started flashing. The rapid-response team was mobilized; nurses made sure he had oxygen; IV access was established; and arterial blood gas and lactate level tests were done. A fluid bolus of 30 cc/kg by IV was ordered, which amounted to about 2 L of fluid, which the nursing staff planned to slam in with a blink of an eye.
Thankfully, the response team decided to call me after only about 200 cc of fluid had been infused, and I calmly said, “Hmm, do you think you can just put that Foley in first?” They did, and 800 cc of urine passed. The patient’s heart rate returned to normal; he became a lot more calm; and his fever came down.
Now, did this patient really need that sepsis protocol adventure, or would a dose of common sense have avoided all of the drama?
This is not unique to the surgical service. Last July, one of my relatives went to the emergency department. He was elderly, had some bad dim sum earlier that evening and had a bout of loose stools. He had fallen while trying to get to the bathroom and had difficulty getting up. With that history and a heart rate of 112, the emergency physician did a quick evaluation.
The sepsis protocol light went off in his head and the computer. Oxygen was administered and a lactate level and arterial blood gas were obtained. They immediately slammed 1,000 cc of normal saline into him. His heart rate increased to 120.
The emergency department team then recruited an admitting team, and they prepared to infuse another liter of fluid in what surely must be refractory sepsis (at least in their view). My relative mentioned that he felt a little “winded” after the first liter of fluid and so the ICU team was summoned. There was discussion about severe gastroenteritis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome, intubation, stool cultures, broad-spectrum antibiotics and a surgery consult.
Because it was July 1, and it was my relative, I decided to stop by the emergency department. I arrived to this little situation. I pointed out that his blood pressure was in the 180s and had never been under 160. He could not possibly have been that dehydrated with just one bout of loose stool two hours ago, and he was walking and talking like a normal person before that. He also had a history of congestive heart failure and tachycardia with fluid overload. He took multiple antihypertensive, diuretic and cardiac medications.
At this point, I asked them to please check his last echocardiogram. Irritated by the bossy physician relative, they looked this up and found that his last ejection fraction was 30%. I pleaded, “Please, can you give him some Lasix and stop all this fluid.” There was almost audible eye rolling. By morning, my relative was sitting in a chair complaining about the runny eggs for breakfast and wanted to go home.
Was that sepsis protocol adventure really necessary?
Protocols can be helpful in managing patients. In the past, original thinking was called for with each clinical problem. But the new “thinking point” for physicians is deciding when protocols are appropriate and when they are not. Protocols were developed based on evidence-based medicine, performed in a very controlled fashion on consenting adults. Many patients were, and are, excluded from protocols. Conclusions cannot necessarily be extrapolated to everyone on the planet. It certainly did not account for the fear of the Foley catheter re-placement or the consequences of bad dim sum in a cardiac patient.
We cannot stop thinking. We struggled hard to get into medical school, studied hard, passed all those FLEX tests, went through a grueling residency, took some demoralizing oral board exams and paid $250,000 tuition for the privilege of all this torture. We cannot suddenly turn off that highly trained brain and put the whole world on a protocol. We cannot let all of the ancillary staff, health extenders, paraprofessionals and the hospital computers run the show just because they are armed with protocols and policies. Medicine is just not that simple, and physicians cannot be replaced by computers.
Despite what all of the high-tech artificial intelligence people say, physicians are still needed to make important management decisions based on the totality of the patient and the human condition. Never forget that. Never be afraid to do what you believe is right for a patient based on your skills, training, experience, expertise, and knowledge of the literature and the patient. You work hard, and you need to think hard. The protocol is a standardization of things that cannot always be standardized. You are smarter than that.
Dr. Wong is professor of surgery, University of Hawaii, in Honolulu.
Dr Wong’s thoughtful commentary highlights the potential harm of the Surviving Sepsis Campaign Guidelines, the consequences of blindly following these guidelines and the impact of codifying these guidelines as standard of care (by CMS and others); this has resulted in the universal adoption of a management strategy that is devoid of supporting scientific data, is frequently applied inappropriately (as highlighted by Dr Wong) and has likely harmed thousands of patients.