How algorithm driven medicine can affect patient care
by Jeffrey Parks, MD
Whenever someone is scheduled for an operation, the assigned nurse is required to fill out a “pre-op checklist” to ensure that all safety and quality metrics are being adhered to. Before the patient is allowed to be wheeled into the OR we make sure the surgical site is marked, the consents are signed, all necessary equipment is available, etc. One of the most important metrics involves the peri-operative administration of IV antibiotics. SCIP guidelines mandate that the prophylactic antibiotic is given within an hour of incision time to optimize outcomes. This has been drilled into the heads of physicians, health care providers, and ancillary staff to such an extent that it occasionally causes total brain shutdown.
Let me explain. For most elective surgeries I give a single dose of antibiotics just before I cut. For elective colon surgery, the antibiotics are continued for 24 hours post-op. This is accepted standard of care. You don’t want to give antibiotics inappropriately or continue them indefinitely.
But what about a patient with gangrenous cholecystitis or acute appendicitis? What if, in my clinical judgment, I want to start the patient on antibiotics right away (i.e. several hours before anticipated incision time) and then continue them for greater than 24 hours post-op, depending on what the clinical status warrants? I should be able to do that right? [No - wrong - the idiots who designed your CPOE/Pharmacy IT system forgot that robotic medicine is bad medicine - ed.]
Well, you’d be surprised. [No, actually, I'm not. I'd have been more surprised to see a system not impeding critical medical decisions tailored to the individual patient - ed.]
You see, at two different, unaffiliated hospitals I cover, the surgeons have seen that decision-making capability removed from their power. If a young patient comes in with acute appendicitis and I feel that it would be prudent to continue the Zosyn an extra couple of days, an automatic stop order is triggered [presumably cybernetically - ed.] in the department of pharmacy and the antibiotic is stopped after 24 hours, no matter what. Unless the surgeon specifically writes “please do not stop this antibiotic after 24 hours; it is being administered for therapeutic purposes, not prophylaxis [that sounds a bit like begging - ed.] ,” the antibiotic will not be sent to the patient’s floor for administration. As a result, patients end up being treated sub-optimally, and potentially harmed, due to an over-emphasis on “protocol” and “quality care metrics.”
Similarly, the 60-minute timeline for pre-operative antibiotic administration can be problematic. I have had patients come into the ER with appendicitis or cholecystitis and, in my pre-op orders, write for Zosyn or whatever, to be started ASAP, no matter what time the operation is scheduled. Not too long ago, I admitted a gallbladder over the phone at 2am. I gave the nurse admitting orders which included one for a broad spectrum antibiotic.
When I saw the patient in the morning, I added her on to the OR schedule. By the time a room opened up, it was about 10:30am. The OR nurse asked me if I wanted to give an antibiotic for the case. I told her that the patient was already on antibiotics as part of her admit orders for treatment. The nurse shook her hand. It had never been given; the floor nurse held it so that it wasn’t administered until 60 minutes before the scheduled OR time, just like the algorithm dictates — despite the fact it had been ordered nearly 8 hours prior to the case, not for peri-op prophylaxis, but for treatment of an established pathology. [This is how EHR-induced malpractice occurs, readers. Guess who bears liability? - ed.]
And there it was, the cefotetan, hanging on her IV stand. Now nothing bad happened [this time, due to luck - ed.], but here you have a situation where health care providers are so terrified of violating Quality Assurance Protocol that they end up withholding necessary treatment. It’s just astounding. [It's astounding the surgeons don't simply use a scalpel on the computer terminal network and power cables to protect their patients - ed.]
As surgeons, we have bitched and moaned. You would think that these issues would be quickly rectified. But no. It is the responsibility of the surgeon to write qualifying statements [a workaround to a 'feature' that turns medical judgment on its head - ed.] for therapeutic antibiotics because the default mode is to override a licensed physician’s clinical judgment. [Not mentioned is who is overriding that judgment through cybernetic proxy - ed.]
This is what I’m talking about when I say that blind allegiance to a top-down, systems analysis-driven algorithm can turn everyone involved in health care into a bunch of mindless drones.
Jeffrey Parks is a general surgeon who blogs at Buckeye Surgeon.
I will simply add that these issues sound like poor IT/protocol design and implementation, getting in a physician's way regarding tailoring of care to the individual patient.
An inviolable rule in health IT is - or needs to be -
There is nothing to debate or discuss on this issue.
Feb. 3, 2012 addendum:
Some IT person (anonymously, of course) tried to argue and debate anyway; however, they did not even do basic homework. See their comments in the comments box.
Feb. 5, 2012 addendum:
More in the comments section by someone saying they made the aforementioned comments, stating they are a hospitalist, and still trying to advance the same arguments in favor of physicians adapting to mission-hostile HIT and/or protocols rather than 'protesting too much.'