Nursing is a stressful job. So when you think that a patient may have been misdiagnosed by another health care worker, it’s important to know exactly what to do—especially if the misdiagnosis could cause permanent harm or death. It’s important to protect your patients as well as yourself.

Jennifer Flynn, CPHRM, risk manager for Nurses Service Organization (NSO), took time to answer in detail what nurses need to do when they suspect a patient is not receiving the care they need.

What should a nurse do if s/he thinks that a patient is not receiving the care they need from another health care worker? What are the specific steps that s/he needs to take? Are these steps different depending on the procedures of the facility?

Every day, nurses are challenged to provide patients with the safest and most effective care possible. Many factors can affect clinical performance. For example, being sleep deprived, running late, being assigned to more patients than usual, or experiencing a breakdown in communication with other providers can influence a nurse’s ability to provide safe patient care.

According to the 2015 NSO/CNA Nurse Professional Liability Exposures Claim Report, failure to invoke the chain of command was identified as a common allegation. Nurses are responsible for invoking the medical chain of command when necessary, in order to trigger a practitioner’s intervention for the patient. Closed claims involving the failure to invoke or utilize the chain of command accounted for 7.5% of the treatment and care closed claims, and reflect a higher average payment as compared to all claims in the report.

Nurses must be comfortable with utilizing the medical chain of command whenever a practitioner does not respond to calls for assistance, fails to appreciate the seriousness of a situation, or neglects to initiate an appropriate intervention.

Consider this scenario: a nurse failed to initiate the chain of command when the practitioner would not respond to her concerns of identified non-reassuring fetal distress. The nurse called the practitioner several times to give an update on the patient’s condition, which continued to deteriorate. Each time the nurse requested that the practitioner come see the patient, the practitioner said it didn’t seem necessary. As a result, the infant suffered birth-related brain injury, requiring lifelong care. The nurse was named in the malpractice lawsuit alleging failure to invoke the chain of command and failure to report changes in the patient’s medical condition. While the nurse had documented making the phone calls to the practitioner, the nurse neglected to include what was told to the practitioner and the practitioner’s response.

Nurses know that treatment and care of every patient starts with timely attention to their needs and persisting to the point of resolution. However, nurses may feel apprehensive about chain of command issues. Fear of disciplinary actions, loss of their jobs, or being labeled as a “troublemaker” are other concerns.

The following strategies can help reduce apprehension regarding chain-of-command issues:

  • Proactively address communication issues between nursing and medical staffs, and identify instances of intimidation, bullying, retaliation, or other deterrents to invoking the chain of command.
  • Notify leadership of individuals or areas that prevent nursing staff from invoking the chain of command or impose punitive actions for doing so.
  • If the organization’s current culture does not support invoking the chain of command, explain the risks posed to patients, staff, practitioners, and the organization, and initiate discussions regarding the need for a shift in organizational culture.

Are nurses usually taught this in nursing school? What should they know about speaking up?

Education in this matter is an ongoing effort. It starts in nursing school, but it must be continuously addressed, communicated, and supported for it to become part of practice.

The first step in protecting yourself from legal action is to know and understand your facility’s policy and procedures on invoking the chain of command to resolve concerns about patient care. In many facilities, policy and procedures manuals are readily accessible. If no chain-of-command policy or procedures exist, find out who in your facility is responsible to do so.

Don’t hesitate to call the appropriate practitioner when there’s a change in your patient’s condition. Most facilities have policies that require this. However, some nurses may feel intimidated by appearing to question a practitioner’s management of a patient.

Express clearly what, if any, action you would like the practitioner to take. If you think your patient needs to be seen, say so. After the conversation, document exactly what you told the practitioner about the patient’s condition.

If you believe the practitioner isn’t taking your concerns seriously, go to the next person in the chain. If necessary, go up your facility’s chain of command until the concern has been addressed. As you contact different staff members in the chain of command, be sure to make a note in the patient’s chart.

By invoking the chain of command, not only do nurses fulfill their obligations as patient advocate, but they protect themselves from liability.

What should nurses not do if they think their patients aren’t getting the care they need?

Advocating for a patient may not always be easy, but it is part of a nurse’s responsibility. Advocacy includes the duty to invoke both the nursing and medical staff chains of command to ensure timely attention to the needs of every patient, and persisting to the point of satisfactory resolution. Not following the chain of command puts the patient’s safety at risk and exposes nurses to the potential of a malpractice lawsuit.

Document each of the steps taken, and the reasons they were taken, to advocate for the patient’s care. Refrain from speculative or subjective comments, including ones regarding colleagues and other members of the patient care team.

Can a nurse get in trouble for reporting something like this? How should they approach this so that they do what is most professional?

To be an effective advocate, nurses first need to understand the laws and regulations governing their practice. Nurses who understand their scope of practice, state practice act, and facility policy and procedure are best able to use established processes to advocate effectively for their patients while protecting themselves from retaliation and litigation.

Effective communication is key. One technique available to nurses is SBAR, which is an acronym for Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation. This communication style can be used to facilitate prompt and appropriate communication. It is a way for nurses to communicate effectively with one another, and between the health care team. It allows for important information to be transferred accurately.

Allegations of malpractice can result from miscommunication or lack of communication between practitioners and nurses. By carefully documenting the information about the patient shared with other members of the patient’s care team, nurses can significantly reduce communication-related risks.

By enhancing their communication skills, nurses can minimize the risk of claims. Some communication strategies include:

  • Clearly articulate your concerns so that others are able to respond.
  • Consider what information to share, when to share it, and with whom it should be shared.
  • Ensure communication among caregivers is professional and respectful.
  • Carefully and timely communicate patient assessments and observations to other members of the health care team.
  • Read back or repeat verbal orders to the practitioner who issued them to verify accuracy and understanding.

Nurses can ask to become more involved in developing and influencing facility policy around advocacy and communication. Nurse leaders, health care administrators, and organizations can change the culture of retaliation and blame, which tends to point fingers instead of recognizing issues and problem solving.

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

Latest posts by Michele Wojciechowski (see all)

Share This