Our friend Valerie DeFrance, who runs the EMS House of Defrance from way up in the Vast Frozen Wasteland facebooked this article this morning and you need to read it.
Yep, check that URL. It’s from a site that specializes in putting out snippets of case law and this one’s simply all-too-common.
You should read the article, or at least skim through the salient points, because this affects you personally. You as an EMS provider should know about this. Pay attention to this case and what it means to you.
In this case, a Paramedic/EMT-B ambulance responded to a person experiencing Chest Pain and Difficulty Breathing. This is a quote from the article: (The emphasis is mine)
The unit arrived at decedent’s home and Respondents performed a primary survey of the decedent ten minutes after the initial call was placed. Respondents followed up on their primary survey with a secondary survey a minute later. They then obtained a set of vital signs. Based on their examination, Respondents diagnosed decedent with acid reflux and recommended a treatment of over-the-counter Maalox/Gaviscon. Believing decedent was in no immediate medical danger, Respondents left the home fifteen minutes after arriving.
The next morning at approximately 10:30 a.m. decedent again called 9-1-1, still complaining of difficulty breathing and chest pains. An ambulance unit from Community Fire Protection District was again dispatched to decedent’s home arriving five minutes later. This unit was manned by a different two-person team than had responded the night before. After finding the decedent was experiencing pain across the chest and into the back, shortness of breath, diaphoresis and nausea, the team began administering emergency treatment with oxygen, aspirin and EKG. At 10:55 a.m. the team initiated emergency transport of decedent to DePaul Health Center where he was admitted ten minutes later. At the Health Center decedent was diagnosed with cardiac arrest and pulmonary embolism and began receiving treatment. The treatment was unsuccessful and decedent died at 4:00 p.m. on 11 July 2008.
So do you see a problem there?
First off, I’m assuming they obtained an AMA refusal form (and if they didn’t, they’re idiots). This case highlights exactly what I’ve always said about refusals being worthless. There’s no mention of the patient having refused transport here. In fact, this isn’t a case on whether or not the EMTs actions were correct or incorrect. This is simply a case to see whether or not they have protection under the doctrine of Sovereign Immunity. It looks to me like they were basing their defense on whether or not they have that legal protection, not basing it on their thought that they provided proper care. It looks like they were assumed not to have provided it. In this case, a signed refusal meant nothing. If they were successfully sued with no mention of the AMA form, what good is it?
Second off, it’s in the official record that their PRIMARY survey took less than a minute… and I can believe that if they were solely attempting to rule out an immediate life threat. That’s what the primary survey is for. As evidenced by the fact that the deceased lasted another ten hours, I can assume that there was no immediate threat to his life. However, they then did a “secondary survey” one minute later and cleared the scene with what I assume to be an AMA refusal in just fifteen minutes. So if we time this out, they made it to the patient’s side in one minute, did two assessments, obtained a refusal, and cleared the scene in 15 minutes? That’s one minute to grab gear and walk to the patient, a minute to rule out immediate life threats, a few minutes to do a secondary assessment and vitals, with no mention of an EKG, and a few minutes to carry whatever gear they took in back to the truck, get back in the truck, and clear? Um… Either these are the fastest medics in the West, or they did a very poor assessment.
And the guy died. And they got sued. And they lost. And they freaking deserved to lose.
The second crew seems to have provided proper care for the patient, and that is evidenced in the case outcome. In fact, the lawyers and the judge seem to have made it a point to show the poor care provided by the first crew in contrast to the proper care provided by the second crew. It’s clearly evident here and I’ll bet that if we were to go to that agency and inspect it, we could probably see the difference in dedication and motivation between the first and second crew. The first paramedic comes off as lazy, callous, and stupid whereas the second paramedic comes off as competent and caring. I’d be willing to bet that this is honestly the case. That the first medic was a “good enough” medic who often encouraged AMA refusals and performed just to the bare minimum and the second medic was somewhat better than the first.
So how, as EMS providers, how do we protect against the precedent set by this case law?
The answer is still now as it always has been, do a thorough assessment every time, kick the decisions up to the physician, and document, document, document. This case was in 2008 and if you were doing EMS back then, you know that a 12-lead EKG was the standard of care. This patient should have had a working diagnosis (Chest pain), attempts at making a differential diagnosis (lung sounds, History and Physical Exam, EKG, SpO2, and trended vital signs and 12-leads) and should have been transported. If the patient wanted to refuse, the physician medical control should have been contacted and this should have been documented. The time limit of 14 minutes of assessment and/or care in this case is evidence that this didn’t happen. The medics blew his call for help off and the patient died.
Here’s what I would have done: I would have performed a thorough patient assessment including lung sounds, ABD assessment, and a history. I would have gotten the OPQRST of the patient’s complaint, and performed serial 12-lead EKGs. Then I would have transported. If the patient refused, I would have transmitted the 12-lead EKG, spoken with a physician about the case, and attempted to have the physician speak with the patient. This all would have been thoroughly documented.
Patients have the right to refuse care if they are conscious, alert, and oriented. They have this right even if they’re being stupid. We have the responsibility to help them make a proper, rational decision and to show that we made every effort to provide them with the best possible information. Proper patient care and excellent documentation are the way we protect against these types of lawsuits… and that really hasn’t changed.
This kind of situation can and does happen. Protect yourself and your agency by never becoming lazy. Document! Document! Document! Do your best every time. Be thorough and don’t succumb to mediocrity just because it’s easy. It will catch up to you just like it did to these two.
For more tips on EMS documentation: