Beyond the White Coat

Making and using guidelines


Modern medicine increasingly relies on the adoption and use of guidelines.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

Forty years ago, medicine was like free-form, rhythmic gymnastics in which physicians would develop an artisanal treatment plan for each patient. Now, medicine frequently involves recognizing when we need to do a triple-twisting, double-back somersault (the Biles II) and then performing it. The belief is that better outcomes flow from reduced variability in diagnostic and treatment plans, based on guidelines developed from evidence-based medicine from large meta-analyses. This dogma, still unproven in real life, probably works best for 95% of patients. The physician must not omit a step of deciding whether their particular patient is one of the 5% of patients to whom the guideline does not apply.

To be useful, the guidelines must be based on accurate science, produce a significantly positive cost-benefit-risk analysis, be wisely constructed, and be clearly written.

Alas, many guidelines fall far short of this ideal, and when they fail, they impugn all of medical care, they lower the credibility of the organizations that issue them, and they lower the public’s trust in medicine, which thereby impedes improving the public health. So I recommend that clinical practice guidelines be reserved for situations in which the health impact is huge. Don’t sweat the small stuff for public health guidelines.

The science matters. Nutritional guidelines have been particularly rickety, as John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, wrote in a JAMA op-ed 1 year ago.1 For instance, previous dietary recommendations to reduce cholesterol by avoiding eggs have since been shown to be wrong. The recommendation for reducing salt intake has been heavily criticized. Now the decades-long condemnation of red meat has been challenged. New “guidelines,” suggested by one group (let’s view it as a minority report that contradicts many official guidelines) in the October 1, 2019, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, say that red meat and processed meats aren’t the boogeyman.2 The authors of the accompanying editorial are from the Center for Pediatric and Adolescent Comparative Effectiveness Research at Indiana University, Indianapolis.3 The editorial supports the new study, criticizing past recommendations because “the field of nutritional epidemiology is plagued by observational studies that have conducted inappropriate analyses, accompanied by likely erroneous conclusions.”

Clarity also matters. One factor in the current opiate epidemic was guidance in the mid-1990s making pain the “fifth vital sign.” This certainly was not the only factor nor was it necessarily the primary one. Most disasters, like most codes on the ward, proceed from multiple smaller failures and missteps. An emphasis on assessing pain in hospitalized patients did not intend to be interpreted as requiring that all pain be eliminated with strong medication, but that was the practical consequence. In response to the epidemic of overdose deaths, guidelines were promulgated in 2016 recommending reducing doses used for chronic opiate regimens. Some patients with chronic pain feared, and soon experienced, the consequences of those changes. In October 2019, those guidelines were revised telling physicians to go slower.4 In explaining the revision, one government official is quoted as saying: “Clearly we believe that there has been misinterpretation of the guidelines, which were very clear.”5 F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I reread that governmental doublespeak three times and my brain broke.

Clinical practice guidelines are an important part of modern medicine. But we need to be wiser about their creation. The science needs to be rigorous. The committees need to contain skeptics rather than just research scientists and clinicians with a vested interest in the field. The purported benefits of the guideline must be weighed against costs, risks, and unintended consequences. Humility is important. All physicians are taught the principle: “First, do no harm.” In explaining medical ethics to students, I rephrase that principle as: “Be cautious and humble. You are not as smart as you think you are.” Consider this food for thought the next time you read or create a guideline.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at [email protected].


1. JAMA. 2018;320(10):969-70.

2. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Oct 1. doi: 10.7326/M19-1621.

3. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Oct 1. doi: 10.7326/M19-2620.

4. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. HHS guide for clinicians on the appropriate dosage reduction or discontinuation of opioid analgesics.

5. “New guidelines on opioid tapering tell doctors to go slow.” Washington Post. 2019 Oct 10.

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