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Qual Saf Health Care 14:290-294 doi:10.1136/qshc.2005.013912
  • Original Article

Rules and guidelines in clinical practice: a qualitative study in operating theatres of doctors’ and nurses’ views

  1. R McDonald1,
  2. J Waring2,
  3. S Harrison1,
  4. K Walshe3,
  5. R Boaden3
  1. 1National Primary Care Research and Development Centre, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  2. 2School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
  3. 3Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R McDonald
  • Accepted 27 May 2005

Abstract

Background: The current orthodoxy within patient safety research and policy is characterised by a faith in rules based systems which limit the capacity for individual discretion, and hence fallibility. However, guidelines have been seen as stifling innovation and eroding trust. Our objectives were to explore the attitudes towards guidelines of doctors and nurses working together in surgical teams and to examine the extent to which trusting relationships are maintained in a context governed by explicit rules.

Methods: Fourteen consultant grade surgeons of mixed specialty, 12 consultant anaesthetists, and 15 nurses were selected to reflect a range of roles. Participant observation was combined with semi-structured interviews.

Results: Doctors’ views about the contribution of guidelines to safety and to clinical practice differed from those of nurses. Doctors rejected written rules, instead adhering to the unwritten rules of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for members of the medical profession. In contrast, nurses viewed guideline adherence as synonymous with professionalism and criticised doctors for failing to comply with guidelines.

Conclusions: While the creation of a “safety culture” requires a shared set of beliefs, attitudes and norms in relation to what is seen as safe clinical practice, differences of opinion on these issues exist which cannot be easily reconciled since they reflect deeply ingrained beliefs about what constitutes professional conduct. While advocates of standardisation (such as nurses) view doctors as rule breakers, doctors may not necessarily regard guidelines as legitimate or identify with the rules written for them by members of other social groups. Future safety research and policy should attempt to understand the unwritten rules which govern clinical behaviour and examine the ways in which such rules are produced, maintained, and accepted as legitimate.

Footnotes