The care of critically ill patients has become increasingly complex as severity of illness continues to increase, the number of patients requiring intensive care is on the rise, the amount of clinical information available at the bedside is growing, and the quantity of evidence supporting or refuting specific therapies and interventions for this population is escalating. It has become problematic for clinicians to master all of these tasks and to process the quantity of available clinical and scientific information in an effective and safe manner. Additionally, a culture promoting safety and accountability has emerged in the United States and throughout the world in regard to medical care. The expectation is that patients entering hospitals should receive the highest quality of care with minimal to no medical errors occurring. To accomplish this goal, as well as to allow more accurate monitoring of day to day medical practices, several strategies have been developed that have primarily been employed in the intensive care unit (ICU) setting. These strategies include the use of paper-based or electronic protocols for disease (e.g., severe sepsis and septic shock) or process of care (e.g., weaning of mechanical ventilation) management, national guidelines, and targeted clinician education with or without periodic feedback regarding compliance with best medical practices and resultant patient-based outcomes. This review focuses on the use of protocols in the ICU setting and how they can best be utilized to improve patient outcomes.
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