Nurses' duty to monitor patients and inform physicians

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  • AUGUST 1997, VOL 66, NO 2 O R N U R S I N G L A W

    Nurses duty to monitor patients and inform physicians

    urses today have a broad scope of responsibility as N health care providers that

    requires them, under some cir- cumstances, to exercise indepen- dent professional judgment. When nurses exercise their judgment negligently, they may be held liable because courts hold them to a correspondingly higher level of accountability.

    D U N TO MONITOR AND INFORM Nurses have been held liable

    for their failure to monitor and/or promptly respond to patients by informing physicians of signifi- cant changes in patients condi- tions. Under these types of cir- cumstances, nurses have an affmative duty to exercise their professional judgment to ensure that all adequate steps are taken to treat patients appropriately.

    Weiss v Goldfarb. A recent New Jersey case demonstrates cir- cumstances under which nurses may be held responsible for failing to inform physicians about patients conditions. In Weiss v Goldfarb (684 A2d 994 [NJ 1996]), the personal representative of a patient who died after suffer- ing a heart attack during dialysis brought a medical malpractice action against the hospital, three cardiologists, a nephrologist, two nurses, two residents, and the chair of the nephrology depart- ment. The complaint alleged that the health care providers responsi- ble for the patients care were neg- ligent because they permitted dial- ysis to take place without monitor-

    ing the patients heart. The moni- toring, the complaint alleged, would have alerted providers to the patients heart attack, which then could have been treated to prevent his death.

    The patient in this case was a 67-year-old man who had come to the dialysis unit from the hospi- tals telemetry unit. He had been a patient in the telemetry unit since his arrival at the hospital two days earlier because of a variety of arrhythmia problems, and his heart had been monitored continu- ously. He suffered from long-term hypertension and various coronary and renal problems. The patient was placed immediately in the telemetry unit on his arrival at the hospital, which meant that he was connected automatically to a car- diac monitor under continuous observation. He arrived at the dial- ysis unit unconnected to a heart monitor, and the dialysis order from the nephrologist in charge of the patients dialysis treatment did not mention cardiac monitoring.

    The nephrologist visited the patient in the telemetry unit in the morning and decided that his con- dition was stable and that dialysis could be scheduled for that after- noon. One and one-half hours later, however, a telemetry nurse telephoned a cardiologist because the patient had developed a junc- tional rhythm, which is an abnor- mality that indicates potential seri- ous risk to the patient. The patients heart rate returned to a normal sinus rhythm after another cardiologist recommended that he

    walk around and discontinue cer- tain medication.

    Although the patients entire medical record accompanied him to the dialysis unit, the dialysis nurse looked only at the nephrol- ogists orders, as was her usual practice. The initial attending dialysis nurse was not even aware that the patient had come to the dialysis unit from the telemetry unit. In preparing the patient for dialysis, she noted he had an irregular heartbeat. She did not, however, report this irregularity to the nephrologist when she discussed details regarding the dialysis solution with him by telephone.

    The appellate court held that the trial court erred in dismissing the claim against the attending dialysis nurse and that the ques- tion of whether she was negligent for not informing the physician about the patients irregular heart- beat before dialysis began should have been submitted to the jury. The court based this conclusion on the testimony of the plaintiffs expert that when a dialysis nurse detects an irregular heartbeat, he or she is obligated to notify the physician immediately.

    This case demonstrates cir- cumstances under which nurses must use their independent judg- ment to inform physicians when significant changes occur in patients conditions or, failing to do this, may be held individually liable. This liability will be imposed even though the nurse follows the usual practice, such


  • AUGUST 1997, VOL 66, NO 2

    as the attending dialysis nurses checking only the nephrologists order. Nurses must familiarize themselves with the relevant stan- dards of care for their areas of nursing.

    The duty to monitor patients and to inform physicians of signif- icant changes does not mean that nurses are required to practice medicine by passing judgment on the efficacy of a course of treat- ment. To fulfill the duty of informing physicians, however, nurses must perform competent nursing assessments of patients to determine signs and symptoms significant to attending physi- cians diagnoses and treatments. This information is critical to allow physicians to make proper diagnoses and devise treatment plans for their patients.

    Shinde (613 NE2d 1014 [Ohio 1993]), a patient brought a mal- practice suit against her obstetri- cian and a hospital for injuries resulting from a seizure. The plaintiff alleged that her injuries were proximately caused by the nurses failure to inform the physician that the patient had preeclampsia. The supreme court of Ohio reversed the trial courts grant of summary judgment to the hospital and found that the question of whether the nurse failed to meet the duty to inform the physician was a jury question. The court noted the expert testi- mony that indicated that the nurse failed to inform the physician of the patients condition because she lacked the necessary knowl- edge and skill to make a compe- tent nursing assessment of preeclampsia.

    Berdyck v Shinde. In Berdyck v

    The patient, Donna Berdyck, had a history of preeclampsia. She arrived at the hospital at 3 AM complaining that something was wrong and was admitted to the obstetrics unit at 3: 10 AM by an RN. Ms Berdyck complained of

    Testimony indicated the nurse lacked the knowledge and skill

    to make a competent nursing


    severe abdominal pain, nausea, and headache. The nurse took her blood pressure at 3:20 AM and found it to be elevated. She did not, however, notify Dr Shinde, Ms Berdycks obstetrician. The nurse again checked Ms Berdycks blood pressure at 3:40 AM and found it to be elevated, so she contacted Dr Shinde at approximately 4 AM. There was conflicting evidence regarding what the nurse related to Dr Shinde regarding Ms Berdycks condition. Five minutes after talk- ing with Dr Shinde, the nurse took another blood pressure reading and discovered that Ms Berdycks blood pressure was 192/112. She did not make any further reports to Dr Shinde. Ms Berdyck suffered a grand ma1 seizure, which resulted in paralysis of the left side of her body.

    generally agreed that Ms Berdy- The court noted that it was

    cks eclamptic seizure could have been prevented had magnesium sulfate been administered at or shortly before 4 AM. In reversing the trial courts dismissal of the hospital on summary judgment, the court emphasized that the plaintiffs expert testified that an obstetric nurse should be aware of the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. The nurse should have been aware of the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia so she could make a competent nursing assessment and inform Dr Shinde, allowing him to respond appropriately.


    article demonstrate, the nurses role in the health care arena is expanding, and nurses are becom- ing an increasingly critical link between patients and physicians. Nurses must take affirmative steps to learn the applicable standards of care for their particular fields of practice. They must have the nec- essary skills to be able to make independent assessments of patients conditions and to be able to recognize signs and symptoms that they must communicate to patients physicians.

    As the cases presented in this





    The authors would like to thank San- dra S . Latham, RN, CNOR, staff nurse, Providence Hospital, Colum- bia, SC,for her help with this article.


    Nurses duty to monitor patients and inform physiciansDUTY TO MONITOR AND INFORMWeiss v Goldfarb.Berdyck v Shinde.



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