Medicolegal Issues

In the Literature


In This Edition

Literature at a Glance

A guide to this month’s studies

Clinical Short


In a randomized, controlled trial of 120 healthy volunteers, the use of a PPI for eight weeks resulted in acid-related symptoms within the four weeks after withdrawal of the PPI. At 12 weeks, 21% of patients in the prior PPI group had symptoms, compared with 2% in the control group.

Citation: Reimer C, Søndergaard B, Hilsted L, Bytzer P. Proton-pump inhibitor therapy induces acid-related symptoms in healthy volunteers after withdrawal of therapy. Gastroenterology. 2009;137(1):80–87.

CPOE Is Associated with Improvement in Quality Measures

Clinical question: Is computerized physician order entry (CPOE) associated with improved outcomes across a large, nationally representative sample of hospitals?

Background: Several single-institution studies suggest CPOE leads to better outcomes in quality measures for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia as defined by the Hospital Quality Alliance (HQA) initiative, led by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Little systematic information is known about the effects of CPOE on quality of care.

Study design: Cross-sectional study.

Setting: The Health Information Management System Society (HIMSS) analytics database of 3,364 hospitals throughout the U.S.

Synopsis: Of the hospitals that reported CPOE utilization to HIMSS, 264 (7.8%) fully implement CPOE throughout their institutions. These CPOE hospitals outperformed their peers on five of 11 quality measures related to ordering medications, and in one of nine non-medication-related measures. No difference was noted in the other measures, except CPOE hospitals were less effective at providing antibiotics within four hours of pneumonia diagnosis. Hospitals that utilized CPOE were generally academic, larger, and nonprofit. After adjusting for these differences, benefits were still preserved.

The authors indicate that the lack of systematic outperformance by CPOE hospitals in all 20 of the quality categories inherently suggests that other factors (e.g., concomitant QI efforts) are not affecting these results. Given the observational nature of this study, no causal relationship can be established between CPOE and the observed benefits. CPOE might represent the commitment of certain hospitals to quality measures, but further study is needed.

Bottom line: Enhanced compliance in several CMS-established quality measures is seen in hospitals that utilize CPOE throughout their institutions.

Citation: Yu FB, Menachemi N, Berner ES, Allison JJ, Weissman NW, Houston TK. Full implementation of computerized physician order entry and medication-related quality outcomes: a study of 3,364 hospitals. Am J Med Qual. 2009;24(4):278-286.

Clinical Shorts


A multicenter, collaborative, prospective study showed a trend toward lower risk of surgical site infection when antimicrobial prophylaxis were given within 30 minutes prior to incision.

Citation: Steinberg JP, Braun BI, Hellinger WC, et al. Timing of antimicrobial prophylaxis and the risk of surgical site infections: results from the Trial to Reduce Antimicrobial Prophylaxis Errors. Ann Surg. 2009;250(1):10-16.


Prospective study of 118,707 patients undergoing non-bariatric surgery showed the risk of death is highest in the underweight and morbidly obese extremes, and lowest in the overweight and moderately obese.

Citation: Mullen JT, Moorman DW, Davenport DL. The obesity paradox: body mass index and outcomes in patients undergoing non-bariatric general surgery. Ann Surg. 2009;250(1):166–172.


Among patients presenting to the ED with a chief complaint of chest pain, there was no difference in the frequency of acute coronary syndrome between patients with chest pain at the time of acquisition of a normal electrocardiogram and those without chest pain during acquisition of a normal electrocardiogram.

Citation: Turnipseed SD, Trythall WS, Diercks DB, et al. Frequency of acute coronary syndrome in patients with normal electrocardiogram performed during presence or absence of chest pain. Acad Emerg Med. 2009;16(6):495-499.


Observational study of 194 patients reported an increased risk of DVT in patients with left-side symptoms, swelling greater than 2 cm in the symptomatic leg, and the first trimester of pregnancy.

Citation: Chan WS, Lee A, Spencer FA, et al. Predicting deep venous thrombosis in pregnancy: out in “LEFt” field? Ann Intern Med. 2009;151(2):85-92.


In this case-control study of 663 participants with DVT and 859 age-matched controls without a DVT, the odds of DVT were 1.33 in those near a major road, compared with those who were not.

Citation: Baccarelli A, Martinelli I, Pegoraro V, et al. Living near major traffic roads and the risk of deep vein thrombosis. Circulation. 2009;119(24):3118-3124.

Standardized Management of Endocarditis Leads to Significant Mortality Benefit

Clinical question: Does a standardized approach to the treatment of infective endocarditis reduce mortality and morbidity?

Background: Despite epidemiological changes to the inciting bacteria and improvements in available antibiotics, mortality and morbidity associated with endocarditis remain high. The contribution of inconsistent or inaccurate treatment of endocarditis is unclear.

Study design: Case series with historical controls from 1994 to 2001, compared with protocolized patients from 2002 to 2006.

Setting: Single teaching tertiary-care hospital in France.

Synopsis: The authors established a diagnostic protocol for infectious endocarditis from 1994 to 2001 (period 1) and established a treatment protocol from 2002 to 2006 (period 2). Despite a statistically significant sicker population (older, higher comorbidities, higher coagulase-negative staphylococcal infections, and fewer healthy valves), the period-2 patients had a dramatically lower mortality rate of 8.2% (P<0.001), compared with 18.5% in period-1 patients. Fewer episodes of renal failure, organ failure, and deaths associated with embolism were noted in period 2.

Whether these results are due to more frequent care, more aggressive care (patients were “summoned” if they did not show for appointments), standardized medication and surgical options, or the effects of long-term collaboration, these results appear durable, remarkable, and reproducible.

This study is limited by its lack of randomization and extensive time frame, with concomitant changes in medical treatment and observed infectious organisms.

Bottom line: Implementation of a standardized approach to endocarditis has significant benefit on mortality and morbidity.

Citation: Botelho-Nevers E, Thuny F, Casalta JP, et al. Dramatic reduction in infective endocarditis-related mortality with a management-based approach. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(14):1290-1298.

Treatment with tPA in the Three- to 4.5-Hour Time Window after Stroke Is Beneficial

Clinical question: What is the effect of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) on outcomes in patients treated in the three- to 4.5-hour window after stroke?

Background: The third European Cooperative Acute Stroke Study 3 (ECASS-3) demonstrated benefit of treatment of acute stroke with tPA in the three- to 4.5-hour time window. Prior studies, however, did not show superiority of tPA over placebo, and there is a lack of a confirmatory randomized, controlled trial of tPA in this time frame.

Study design: Meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials.

Setting: Four studies involving 1,622 patients who were treated with intravenous tPA for acute ischemic stroke from three to 4.5 hours after stroke compared with placebo.

Synopsis: Of the randomized, controlled trials of intravenous tPA for treatment of acute ischemic stroke from three to 4.5 hours after stroke, four trials (ECASS-1, ECASS-2, ECASS-3, and ATLANTIS) were included in the analysis. Treatment with tPA in the three- to 4.5-hour time window is associated with increased favorable outcomes based on the global outcome measure (OR 1.31; 95% CI: 1.10-1.56, P=0.002) and the modified Rankin Scale (OR 1.31; 95% CI: 1.07-1.59, P=0.01), compared with placebo. The 90-day mortality rate was not significantly different between the treatment and placebo groups (OR 1.04; 95% CI 0.75-1.43, P=0.83).

Due to the relatively high dose of tPA (1.1 mg/kg) administered in the ECASS-1 trial, a separate meta-analysis looking at the other three trials (tPA dose of 0.9 mg/kg) was conducted, and the favorable outcome with tPA remained.

Bottom line: Treatment of acute ischemic stroke with tPA in the three- to 4.5-hour time window results in an increased rate of favorable functional outcomes without a significant difference in mortality.

Citation: Lansberg MG, Bluhmki E, Thijs VN. Efficacy and safety of tissue plasminogen activator 3 to 4.5 hours after acute ischemic stroke: a metaanalysis. Stroke. 2009;40(7):2438-2441.

Outpatients Often Are Not Notified of Clinically Significant Test Results

Clinical question: How frequently do primary-care physicians (PCPs) fail to inform patients of clinically significant outpatient test results?

Background: Diagnostic errors are the most common cause of malpractice claims in the U.S. It is unclear how often providers fail to either inform patients of abnormal test results or document that patients have been notified.

Study design: Retrospective chart review.

Setting: Twenty-three primary-care practices: 19 private, four academic.

Synopsis: More than 5,400 charts were reviewed, and 1,889 abnormal test results were identified in this study. Failure to inform or document notification was identified in 135 cases (7.1%). The failure rates in the practices ranged from 0.0% to 26.2%. Practices with the best processes for managing test results had the lowest failure rates; these processes included: all results being routed to the responsible physician; the physician signing off on all results; the practice informing patients of all results, both normal and abnormal; documenting when the patient is informed; and instructing patients to call if not notified of test results within a certain time interval.

Limitations of this study include the potential of over- or underreporting of failures to inform as a chart review was used, and only practices that agreed to participate were included.

Bottom line: Failure to notify outpatients of test results is common but can be minimized by creating a systematic management of test results that include best practices.

Citation: Casalino LP, Dunham D, Chin MH, et al. Frequency of failure to inform patients of clinically significant outpatient test results. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(12):1123-1129.

Repair of Incidental PFO Discovered During Cardiothoracic Surgery Repair Increases Postoperative Stroke Risk

Clinical question: What is the impact of closing incidentally discovered patent foramen ovale (PFO) defects during cardiothoracic surgery?

Background: PFO’s role in cryptogenic stroke remains controversial. Incidental PFO is commonly detected by transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) during cardiothoracic surgery. Routine PFO closure has been recommended when almost no alteration of the surgical plan is required.

Study design: Retrospective chart review.

Setting: The Cleveland Clinic.

Synopsis: Between 1995 and 2006, 13,092 patients undergoing cardiothoracic surgery had TEE data with no previous diagnosis of PFO, but the review found that 2,277 (17%) had PFO discovered intraoperatively. Of these, 639 (28%) had the PFO repaired.

Patients with an intraoperative diagnosis of PFO had similar rates of in-hospital stroke and hospital death compared with those without PFO. Patients who had their PFO repaired had a greater in-hospital stroke risk (2.8% vs. 1.2%; P=0.04) compared with those with a non-repaired PFO, representing nearly 2.5 times greater odds of having an in-hospital stroke. No other difference was noted in perioperative outcomes for patients who underwent intraoperative repair compared with those who did not, including risk of in-hospital death, hospital length of stay, ICU length of stay, and time on cardiopulmonary bypass. Long-term analysis demonstrated that PFO repair was associated with no survival difference.

The study is limited by its retrospective nature.

Bottom line: Routine surgical closure of incidental PFO detected during intraoperative imaging should be discouraged.

Citation: Krasuski RA, Hart SA, Allen D, et al. Prevalence and repair of interoperatively diagnosed patent foramen ovale and association with perioperative outcomes and long-term survival. JAMA. 2009;302(3):290-297.

Clinical Short


Retrospective analysis of ICU patients shows that both adequate initial-fluid resuscitation and conservative late-fluid management are associated with decreased mortality. Hospital mortality was lowest in those receiving both therapies, as opposed to those receiving only one or none.

Citation: Murphy CV, Schramm GE, Doherty JA, et al. The importance of fluid management in acute lung injury secondary to septic shock. Chest. 2009; 136(1);102-109.

Hospital-Level Differences Are Strong Predictors of Time to Defibrillation Delay In Cardiac Arrest

Clinical question: What are the predictors of delay in the time to defibrillation after in-hospital cardiac arrest?

Background: Thirty percent of in-hospital cardiac arrests from ventricular arrhythmias are not treated within the American Heart Association’s recommendation of two minutes. This delay is associated with a 50% lower rate of in-hospital survival. Exploring the hospital-level variation in delays to defibrillation is a critical step toward sharing the best practices.

Study design: Retrospective review of registry data.

Setting: The National Registry of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (NRCPR) survey of 200 acute-care, nonpediatric hospitals.

Synopsis: The registry identified 7,479 patients who experienced cardiac arrest from ventricular tachycardia or pulseless ventricular fibrillation. The primary outcome was the hospital rate of delayed defibrillation (time to defibrillation > two minutes), which ranged from 2% to 51%.

Time to defibrillation was found to be a major predictor of survival after a cardiac arrest. Only bed volume and arrest location were associated with differences in rates of delayed defibrillation (lower rates in larger hospitals and in ICUs). The variability was not due to differences in patient characteristics, but was due to hospital-level effects. Academic status, geographical location, arrest volume, and daily admission volume did not affect the time to defibrillation.

The study was able to identify only a few facility characteristics that account for the variability between hospitals in the rate of delayed defibrillation. The study emphasizes the need for new approaches to identifying hospital innovations in process-of-care measures that are associated with improved performance in defibrillation times.

Bottom Line: Future research is needed to better understand the reason for the wide variation between hospitals in the rate of delayed defibrillation after in-hospital cardiac arrest.

Citation: Chan PS, Nichol G, Krumholz HM, Spertus JA, Nallamothu BK; American Heart Association National Registry of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (NRCPR) Investigators. Hospital variation in time to defibrillation after in-hospital cardiac arrest. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(14):1265-1273.

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Treating for H. Pylori Reduces the Risk for Developing Gastric Cancer in High-Risk Patients

Clinical question: In patients with high-baseline incidence of gastric cancer, does H. pylori eradication reduce the risk for developing gastric cancer?

Background: Gastric cancer remains a major health problem in Asia. The link of H. pylori and gastric cancer has been established, but it remains unclear whether treatment for H. pylori is effective primary prevention for the development of gastric cancer.

Study design: Meta-analysis of six studies.

Setting: All but one trial was performed in Asia.

Synopsis: Seven studies met inclusion criteria, one of which was excluded due to heterogeneity. The six remaining studies were pooled, with 37 of 3,388 (1.1%) treated patients developing a new gastric cancer, compared with 56 of 3,307 (1.7%) patients who received placebo or were in the control group (RR 0.65; 0.43-0.98). Most patients received gastric biopsy prior to enrollment, and most of those demonstrated gastric atrophy or intestinal metaplasia.

These patients, despite more advanced precancerous pathology findings, still benefited from eradication. The seventh study, which was excluded, enrolled patients with early gastric cancer; these patients still benefited from H. pylori eradication and, when included in the meta-analysis, the RR was even lower, 0.57 (0.49-0.81).

Only two trials were double-blinded, but all of the studies employed the same definition of gastric cancer and held to excellent data reporting standards. This study encourages screening and treatment in high-risk patients given the widespread incidence of H. pylori.

Bottom Line: Treatment of H. pylori reduces the risk of gastric cancer in high-risk patients.

Citation: Fuccio L, Zagari RM, Eusebi LH, et al. Meta-analysis: can Helicobacter pylori eradication treatment reduce the risk for gastric cancer? Ann Intern Med. 2009;151(2):121-128.

Patients on Anti-Platelet Agents with Acute Coronary Syndrome Have a Lower Bleeding Risk When Treated with Fondaparinux

Clinical question: Is there a difference in bleeding risk with fondaparinux and enoxaparin when used with GPIIb/IIIa inhibitors or thienopyridines in NSTEMI-ACS?

Background: The OASIS 5 study reported a 50% reduction in severe bleeding when comparing fondaparinux to enoxaparin in ACS while maintaining a similar efficacy. This subgroup analysis was performed to evaluate whether reduced bleeding risk with fondaparinux remains in patients treated with additional anti-platelet agents.

Study design: Subgroup analysis of a large, multicenter, randomized, double-blind trial.

Setting: Acute-care hospitals in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Asia.

Synopsis: Patients with NSTE-ACS received either fondaparinux or enoxaparin and were treated with GPIIb/IIIa inhibitors or thienopyridines at the discretion of their physician. At 30 days, the fondaparinux group had similar efficacy and decreased bleeding risk in both the GPIIb/IIIa and the thienopyridine groups. Of the 3,630 patients in the GPIIb/IIIa group, the risk for major bleeding with fondaparinux was 5.2%, whereas the risk with enoxaparin was 8.3% (HR 0.61; P<0.001) compared with enoxaparin. Of the 1,352 patients treated with thienopyridines, the risk for major bleeding with fondaparinux was 3.4%, whereas the risk with enoxaparin was 5.4% (HR 0.62; P<0.001).

Bottom Line: This subgroup analysis suggests there are less-severe bleeding complications in patients treated with fondaparinux when compared with enoxaparin in the setting of cotreatment with GPIIb/IIIa inhibitors, thienopyridines, or both.

Citation: Jolly SS, Faxon DP, Fox KA, et al. Efficacy and safety of fondaparinux versus enoxaparin in patients with acute coronary syndromes treated with glycoprotein IIb/IIIa inhibitors of thienopyridines: results from the OASIS 5 (Fifth Organization to Assess Strategies in Ischemic Syndromes) trial. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2009;54(5):468-476.

Surrogate Decision-Makers Frequently Doubt Clinicians’ Ability to Predict Medical Futility

Clinical question: What attitudes do surrogate decision-makers hold toward clinicians’ predictions of medical futility in critically-ill patients?

Background: The clinical judgment of medical futility leading to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment—despite the objections of surrogate decision-makers—is controversial. Very little is known about how surrogate decision-makers view the futility rationale when physicians suggest limiting the use of life-sustaining treatment.

Study design: Multicenter, mixed, qualitative and quantitative study.

Setting: Three ICUs in three different California hospitals from 2006 to 2007.

Synopsis: Semi-structured interviews of surrogate decision-makers for 50 incapacitated, critically-ill patients were performed to ascertain their beliefs about medical futility in response to hypothetical situations. Of the surrogates surveyed, 64% expressed doubt about physicians’ futility predictions.

The interviewees gave four main reasons for their doubts. Two reasons not previously described were doubts about the accuracy of physicians’ predictions and the need for surrogates to see futility themselves. Previously described sources of conflict included a misunderstanding about prognosis and religious-based objections. Surrogates with religious objections were more likely to request continuation of life-sustaining treatments than those with secular or experiential objections (OR 4; 95% CI 1.2-14.0; P=0.03). Nearly a third (32%) of surrogates elected to continue life support with a <1% survival estimate; 18% elected to continue life support when physicians thought there was no chance of survival.

This study has several limitations: a small sample size, the use of hypothetical situations, and the inability to assess attitudes as they change over time.

Bottom line: The nature of surrogate decision-makers’ doubts about medical futility can help predict whether they accept predictions of medical futility from physicians.

Citation: Zier LS, Burack JH, Micco G, Chipman AK, Frank JA, White DB. Surrogate decision makers’ responses to physicians’ predictions of medical futility. Chest. 2009;136:110-117. TH


House-Staff Signout Complexities Remain

By Mark Shen, MD

Reviewed by Pediatric Editor Mark Shen, MD, medical director of hospital medicine at Dell Children’s Medical Center, Austin, Texas.

Clinical question: What are the characteristics of signout among house staff?

Background: Inadequate signout is a recognized contributor to medical errors. As care has become increasingly fragmented among house staff who must comply with work-hour restrictions, both the absolute number of signouts and the potential for incomplete transfer of information increase. Despite recent Joint Commission requirements to standardize handoffs, comprehensive analyses of the process remain scarce.

Study design: Quantitative and qualitative analysis of audiotaped oral internal-medicine signout.

Setting: Academic teaching hospital.

Synopsis: Audiotaped signout for eight internal-medicine house-staff teams during two time periods in 2006 were analyzed for content, clarity of language, and surrounding environment. Most signout (59.2%) did not include questions, and questioning of patient management was often indirect when it occurred. A spectrum of clarity existed from unclear anticipatory guidance to clear, concise instructions. Interruptions occurred less than 20% of the time. Familiarity with patients, sense of responsibility for patients, sequential signouts, experience, and comprehensiveness of the written form affected the content of the signout.

This study provides insight into the broad array of factors that affect signout. Despite the potential for interactive facilitation of understanding, the process is often one-sided and operator-dependent. Such systems-based factors as familiarity with patients and sequential signouts might affect quality, while cultural norms (such as sense of responsibility) also play a role.

Limitations of this study include the nonblinded observation method and the potential for institution-specific culture to limit applicability. Nonetheless, this study adds to literature painting a broader and complex picture of a routine hospital process often taken for granted.

Bottom line: Improving and standardizing handoffs requires attention to multifaceted domains that commonly affect complex human organizations.

Citation: Horwitz LI, Moin T, Krumholz HM, Wang L, Bradley EH. What are covering doctors told about their patients? Analysis of sign-out among internal medicine house staff. Qual Saf Health Care. 2009;18(4):248-255.

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