Medicolegal Issues

The DNR Dilemma


 

Dr. Sehgal

When it comes to communicating do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, hospitals rely on a bewildering array of paper documentation, electronic records, and colored wristbands that can easily be misinterpreted.

These are the findings reported in the November-December issue of the Journal of Hospital Medicine by Niraj Sehgal, MD, and Robert Wachter, MD. Dr. Wachter is associate chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Sehgal is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the school.

Read this Research

Find this study (“Identification of Inpatient DNR Status: A Safety Hazard Begging for Standardization”) in the November-December 2007 Journal of Hospital Medicine.

In a survey of 69 nursing executives representing hospitals in a consortium of academic medical centers, “More than 70% of respondents recalled situations when confusion around a DNR order led to problems in patient care,” the authors say.

Everyone has a “near-miss” story, says Dr. Sehgal.

In one budget-minded hospital where materials were recycled, someone forgot to remove a DNR sticker from a previous patient’s folder before the folder was assigned to someone else. Several nurses told of instances in which patients were resuscitated inappropriately because hospital staff members did not see DNR stickers in the patient’s chart, the patient was off the unit for a procedure without a complete chart, or the DNR order was buried under other materials.

Much of the problem stems from the lack of a standardized method for making a patient’s DNR wishes known, Dr. Sehgal explains.

For example, in 2004 Dr. Sehgal saw a newspaper report that BayCare Health hospitals, in and around Tampa, Fla., were covering yellow “Livestrong” bracelets issued by the Lance Armstrong Foundation and worn by some patients to support those living with cancer. BayCare uses yellow bracelets for DNR patients. Nearly 20% of Americans wear “Livestrong” bracelets, posing a challenge for any hospital that also uses yellow bracelets to indicate DNR.

Developing a system for making a patient’s wishes known to hospital staff is one of two challenges reflected in this study, he adds. The second is to use what might be perfunctory questions about advance directives as an opening for a deeper discussion about the patient’s thoughts on end-of-life care

The newspaper story was the impetus for this study, Dr. Sehgal recalls. “I saw that article and thought, ‘What a great metaphor for the need for standardization.’”

He and Dr. Wachter designed a brief survey and distributed it via an e-mail listserve to senior nursing staff members of the University HealthSystem Consortium, an alliance of 97 academic medical centers and their affiliated hospitals. Those institutions represent 90% of the nation’s nonprofit academic medical centers.

Of the 127 nursing executives who received survey announcements, 69 (54%) returned completed questionnaires. Of those, 39 (56%) reported that their hospitals documented patients’ DNR preferences only in the charts, while 11 (16%) used only electronic health records (EHRs). Seventeen (25%) augmented the paper charts or EHRs with color-coded wristbands in eight colors.

“We expected variability, but even so we were struck by how much variability existed in our findings,” Dr. Sehgal says.

Hospitals use wristbands in a rainbow of colors to convey many messages. Of the hospitals represented in this survey, 55% used them to warn of allergies, fall risks, and even same last names. The authors found “12 different indications were depicted by various colors, with variations in both the color choice for a given indication (e.g., red and yellow used for allergy wristbands at different hospitals) and across indications (e.g., red for allergy at one hospital and red for bleeding risk at another).”

Hospitals vary widely in how they use color-coded wristbands to signal Dr. Sehgal

Hospitals vary widely in how they use color-coded wristbands to signal

A national, standardized system for conveying patients’ DNR wishes would seem logical, but no system is in place, Dr. Sehgal says. Hospitals cannot even agree on which method to use. While some use wristbands, others use notices or stickers incorporated into the chart. Still others use EHRs.

A few states, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Colorado have established statewide standards for using wristbands—but each state chose a different color. “I suspect that many physicians don’t know the meaning of many of the wristbands used in their hospitals, especially if those doctors rotate among different hospitals or hospital systems,” Dr. Sehgal says.

Developing a system for making a patient’s wishes known to hospital staff is one of two challenges reflected in this study, he adds. The second is to use what might be perfunctory questions about advance directives as an opening for a deeper discussion about the patient’s thoughts on end-of-life care. Right now, those questions are just another process measure hospitals must document. “It becomes just another box to check instead of a tool for opening a conversation about what the patient’s wishes are,” he says.

Hospitalists should embrace the opportunity to involve the patient, the patient’s family members, and the primary care provider in an ongoing discussion about the patient’s desires over the course of the hospital stay. “This can give patients a mechanism for thinking about what they’d want under certain circumstances,” Dr. Sehgal explains.

From this study’s findings emerge two take-home messages for hospitalists, he maintains. The first is to remember that “we in inpatient settings spend a lot of time taking care of patients, and we must be aware of what those patients’ wishes are with respect to DNR.” The second is to step back and take an even broader view by remaining alert to processes other than DNR that might benefit from a standardized approach. “Maybe we should think about that, particularly when there is the potential to significantly harm patients,” he says. TH

Norra MacReady is a medical writer based in California.

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