Opining on Protocols

As Bill O’Reilly says, if you must opine, keep it pithy.  I may not be pithy, but I must opine.  Lately, I’ve noticed a recurring trend on EMS social media when discussing protocols.  Namely, people are convinced that deviating from protocol makes you immediate prey and fodder for attorneys.  Well, that’s simply not true.

Here’s some good news.  First, most attorneys aren’t that interested or knowledgeable about EMS and what we do.  Second, while deviating from your protocols may well get you in trouble with your medical director and/or your bosses, it’s not going to make you automatically subject to a lawsuit.

Let’s discuss that a bit further.  Most claims against EMS for a bad outcome are going to be based on negligence.  I’ve discussed negligence before, but as a reminder, the four elements are a duty to the patient, a breach of that duty, causation of harm, and damages.  So, in order to prove a negligence claim based on a breach of protocol, one must first prove that deviating from protocol breached the duty to the patient.  In other words, the plaintiff is going to have to prove that the protocols represent the current standard of care.  In many cases, many EMS systems have outdated protocols that do not represent the standard of care.  For example, look how many EMS systems still backboard the majority of trauma patients or require high-flow oxygen for all patients.  In the case of high-flow oxygen for cardiac and stroke patients, the current science in fact reflects that high-flow oxygen actually harms patients. Next, the plaintiff will have to prove that the deviation from protocol caused harm to the patient and that the harm caused damages.  That’s a high burden to overcome.  In other words, the plaintiff is going to have to prove that what you did or didn’t do was the reason there’s a bad outcome.  Especially in critical or high acuity patients who had a bad outcome (IE, death), there’s often an argument to be made that, no matter what EMS or other medical providers did, the patient might have died regardless.  The reality is that we just aren’t going to get every patient back.

And let’s consider one other thing about protocols. Sometimes protocols are blatantly wrong and following them is just as wrong.  Let’s pretend that your protocols suggest you administer a clearly incorrect dose of medicine.  Blindly following them does not shield you from liability.  As a trained medical professional (which is what we’re all striving to be), you have an obligation to clarify and/or refuse to follow a clearly wrong order.  The “just following orders” defense went out with the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II and remains just as legally and morally invalid as it was then.  If EMS providers want to be considered as the professionals we should be, then we can’t hide behind the doctors’ lab coats when we’re practicing medicine that is clearly wrong and/or harmful.

Of course, nothing here constitutes legal advice.  I’m just trying to clarify and educate here.  If you’re that worried about the attorney boogeyman, your time and money would be better spent on buying EMS professional liability insurance and/or consulting with a lawyer admitted to practice in your state.  Sadly, I’m afraid that some of the people most worried about the legal boogeyman would rather spend their time repeating legal myths and dogma they heard third or fourth hand in a war story during their initial EMT class’s medical legal lecture.

In conclusion, the law is a complex and nuanced topic that is dependent on the statutes and case law of the particular jurisdiction as well as the facts of the case.  That’s why those who’ve attended their one mandatory medical legal class have absolute certainty in their wrong answer and why attorneys with three years of law school after four years of undergraduate education say, “It depends.”

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