Tag Archives: nursing

Nursing Malpractice: The Basics – Part 2

What are common sources of malpractice complaints against nurses? The most common event is medication error. Most people worry about common errors like wrong dose, wrong drug, and wrong route of administration. But one less commonly considered drug-related responsibility is assessment for side effects and toxicity of medications administered.

Other common reasons include failure to adequately monitor and assess the patient, and failure to supervise a patient that results in harm. Significant changes in patient condition must be reported to the responsible physician. However, doing so does not necessarily get the nurse off the hook. If the physician’s response leads the nurse to believe that they have misdiagnosed the problem or are prescribing an incorrect drug or course of action, the nurse is obligated to follow the chain of command to notify a nursing supervisor or other physician of the event.

And finally, one of the most common issues complicating malpractice cases of any kind is documentation. Lawsuits must typically be filed within two years of the event that caused harm. Once that occurs though, several more years may pass before significant action occurs. Collection and review of documentation, identification of experts, and collection of depositions takes time. And unfortunately, our memories are imperfect after many years go by. Good documentation is paramount! “Work not documented is work not done,” I always say. And poor documentation allows attorneys to make your good work look as bad as they want and need it to.

Reference: Examining Nursing Malpractice: A Defense Attorney’s Perspective. Critical Care Nursing 23(2):104-107, 2003.

Nursing Malpractice: The Basics – Part 1

Back in the old, old days, there was really no such thing as nursing malpractice. Nurses had little true responsibility, and liability largely fell to the treating physicians. But as nursing responsibilities have grown, they have become an integral part of the assessment, planning, and management of their patients.

As all trauma professionals know, our work is very complex. And unfortunately, our understanding of how the human body works and responds to injury is still incomplete. So, unfortunately, undesirable things happen from time to time.

But does every little adverse event or complication mean that someone is at fault? Or that they can/should be sued? Fortunately, the answer is no.

The law is complex, at least to professionals outside the legal field. Following are the basics of malpractice as it relates to nurses.

There are four elements that must be present for a malpractice case to be brought forward:

  1. The nurse must have established a nurse-patient relationship. Documentation provided by the nurse or other providers in the medical record must demonstrate that they were in some way involved in care of the patient.
  2. A scope of duty must be established within the relationship. For example, an ICU nurse will have duties relating to examining the patient, recording vital signs, reporting significant events to physicians, etc. The exact duties may vary somewhat geographically and even between individual hospitals. Written policies help to clarify some of these duties, but often, experts are required to testify to what the usual standards of care are when not covered by policy.
  3. There must be a departure from what is called “good and accepted practice.” The definition of this leaves a lot of wiggle room. It is defined as the care that an ordinarily prudent nurse would have provided in the given situation. It does not need to be the optimum or best care. And if there is more than one approved choice, a nurse is not negligent if they choose either of them, even if it later turns out to be a poorer choice.
  4. Finally, there must be a cause-effect relationship between the nurse’s action and the patient’s alleged injury. This linkage must be more than a possibility, it must be highly probable. For example, wound infections occur after a given percentage of operations, and it varies based on the wound classification. It’s a tough sell to bring suit for improper dressing care in a grossly contaminated wound that is likely to become infected anyway. Typically, expert witnesses must attest to the fact that the patient was, more likely than not, harmed by the nurse’s action or inaction.

Tune in to my next post for Part 2 of Nursing Malpractice!

Fatigue III: Impact On Nurses

Although 8-hour shifts are the most common work arrangement around the country in all most occupations, they are a bit less common in nursing. Nurses have work and sleep patterns equivalent to prehospital providers. And critical care nurses probably have the most variable and punishing work patterns.

One may think that just increasing to a 12-hour shift is not that big of a deal. The nursing school at the University of Auckland performed their own survey of ICU nurses in two separate hospitals in New Zealand. They administered the Occupational Fatigue Exhaustion/Recovery Scale and evaluated differences in relation to a number of demographic variables.

Here are the factoids:

  • There were a total of 67 participants in the two hospitals and all worked 12-hour shifts.
  • Nurses at one hospital (A) worked mostly day or mostly night shifts and tended to be younger. Shifts were more mixed at the other (B).
  • About half of the nurses reported low to moderate fatigue acutely, and two thirds re-ported this level between shifts as well.
  • Factors that correlated with increased fatigue were younger age, fewer children, less years of experience, and less exercise.
  • Higher fatigue levels were reported at hospital A, which had the younger, less experienced nurses.

Bottom line: This is another survey study, but it does illustrate some common issues. Some factors could be changed by rearranging the shift structure to all day or all night shifts. Exercise was associated with less stress and could be encouraged. But the nature and pace of work in the ICU remains constant and is difficult to control for. Some strategies for positive change are listed on the next page of the newsletter.

In my next post, I’ll review the impact of sleep problems on trauma surgeons and residents.

Reference: Exploring the impact of 12-hour shifts on nurse fatigue in intensive care. Applied Nurs Res 50:151191, Dec 2019.

Nursing Tips for Managing Pediatric Orthopedic Trauma

Nurses have a complementary role with physicians in caring for children with orthopedic injuries. Typically, the child will have been evaluated and had some sort of fracture management implemented. In children, nursing management is easer than in adults since a child is less likely to need an invasive surgical procedure. Many fractures can be dealt with using casts and splints alone.

Here are a few tips for providing the best care for your pediatric patients:

  • Ensure adequate splinting / casting. You will have an opportunity to see the child at their usual level of activity. If it appears likely that their activity may defeat the purpose of the cast or splint, inform the surgeon or extender so they can apply a better one.
  • Focus on pain control. Nothing aggravates parents more than seeing their child in pain! Make sure acetominophen or ibuprofen is available prn if pain is very mild, or scheduled if more significant. Ensure that mild narcotics are available if pain levels are higher. Remember, stool softeners are mandatory if narcotics are given.
  • Monitor compartments frequently. If a cast is used, check the distal part of the extremity for pain, unwillingness to move, numbness or swelling. If any are present, call the physician or extender and expect prompt attention to the problem.
  • Always think about the possibility of abuse. Fractures are rarely seen in children under 3, and almost never if less than 1 year old. If you have concerns about the physical findings or parent interactions, let the physician and social workers know immediately.

Nurses: Stop The Insanity! What To Do When The Doc Won’t Listen

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

This post applies specifically to nurses. I know it’s happened to you. Your patient is having a problem. You do a little troubleshooting, but you feel that a doctor needs to know and possibly take some action. So you page them and duly note it in the medical record. No response. You do it again, and document it. No response. And a third time, with the same result.

And now what? Call someone else? Give up and hope the patient improves?

What if the doctor on call is a known asshole? Are you even reluctant to call in the first place? Do you delay as long as you possibly can?

Believe it or not, I’ve seen many chart review cases over the years where this situation does arise. And every once in a while, the patient actually dies. Sometimes this is directly related to the lack of intervention, but sometimes it just sets the ball rolling that eventually leads to patient demise days or weeks later.

What’s the answer? We all want to provide the best care possible for our patients. But sometimes social factors (or pager malfunctions) just get in the way. Here’s how to deal with it.

Every hospital / nursing unit needs to have a procedure for escalating patient care calls to more advanced providers. When one of your patients develops a problem, you usually have a pretty good idea of what the possible solutions are. So call/page the proper person (PA/NP/MD) who can provide that solution. If they don’t give you the “right answer”, then question it. They are not all-knowing.

If they give you a good explanation, go with it, but keep your eye on your patient’s progress. If they can’t explain why they are giving you the wrong answer, suggest they check with someone more senior. And if they don’t want to, let them know that you will have to. Consider no answer the same as a wrong answer.

Don’t stop going up the chain of command until you get that right answer, or an explanation that satisfies you. The hard part here is going up the chain. You may not be comfortable with this. But you do have resources that can help you that have more authority (nurse manager, supervisor, etc). If they, too, are uncomfortable, then your hospital has much bigger problems (unhealthy workplace). 

Example: trauma unit nurses at my hospital will call the first year resident first, then escalate to the junior and/or chief residents. If they don’t do the right thing, the in-house trauma attending gets the call. If they don’t handle it, then the trauma medical director (me) gets called. And, of course, I always do the right thing (chuckle). And our nurses know that the surgeons support them completely, since this facilitates the best patient care. The residents and PAs are educated about this chain of command when they first start on the trauma service, and it makes them more likely to choose the “right answer” since they know the buck may not stop with them.