Vital signs: Measurement, baseline and medical malpractice

Vital signs are some basic clinical measurements that doctors and nurses use to assess how patients’ basic body systems are working. When measured over time, they also provide a useful baseline that allows healthcare providers to recognize a change in the patient’s clinical status.

Chances are, any time you’ve been in a doctor’s office or the hospital, you had at least the four basic vital signs assessed and recorded in your medical record. They include:

• Body temperature: You can use different thermometers to measure body temperatures in five ways: orally (by mouth), directly, axillary (via the armpit), by ear, or through the skin surface.

Interestingly, while most people think of 98.6° as a normal body temperature, recent literature reflects that it’s actually lower than that. A German physician came up with that figure in 1851, but current medical research reflects that the average normal body temperature of Americans has dropped about 0.05° per decade.

Additionally, the average body temperature varies by sex, body size, age, and even the time of day when it’s measured. For most men alive today, the average body temperature is about 1° cooler than 98.6°. For most women alive today, it’s closer to about 0.5° cooler.

These variations underscore the importance of using vital signs to establish a baseline of what’s normal for a particular patient.

• Pulse: This is the heart rate. A normal resting heart rate for most adults is 60–100 beats per minute.

Again, the person’s average resting pulse is influenced by genetic factors, age, fitness, body habitus, certain medications, and other factors. Athletes, for example, may have a normal resting heart rate of closer to 40 bpm.

• Respiration rate: This is the number of breaths you take per minute. The normal range for adults is 12–16 breaths per minute.

• Blood pressure: Blood pressure is measured by two numbers that reflect the force of blood pushing against arterial walls when the heart contracts and relaxes. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure. The bottom number is called diastolic blood pressure. Doctors and nurses consider normal blood pressure to be less than 120/80.

Taken as a whole, vital signs provide useful, sometimes critical, information for doctors and nurses about how patients are doing.

When reviewing Texas medical malpractice cases here at Painter Law Firm, we look closely at the vital signs documented in the patient’s medical records. It’s incredible how often we see patients being discharged from an emergency room or hospital with glaringly abnormal vital signs.

This is where a patient’s baseline is important. Sometimes, abnormal vital signs are a normal part of the person’s baseline. Other times, though, they’re an indicator that something’s wrong. In either situation, the standard of care requires a physician to review a patient’s vital signs before making a discharge decision. If that isn’t done, it’s up to the nursing staff to advocate on behalf of the patient to be sure that discharge is safe.

If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor physician or nursing assessment and care, contact a top-rated Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.