Is Normalisation of Deviance the “Standard” in Medicine?

Author: Neel Bhanderi  / Code: CC14, CC21, CC24 Published: 10/10/2016

The idea of normalisation of deviance is the brainchild of an American sociologist, Diane Vaughan, who thought that essentially people become used to accepting deviant behaviour as normal practice, the more it occurs.


I have lately been thinking about how this relates to medical practice, in particular my specialty, emergency medicine. The idea came from a colleague of mine, @wgbrook when he mentioned that we can deviate from our normal practice with the justification that it is within the limits of acceptable risk. If this continues to occur, those within the organisation will consider their new behaviour as standard practice. However to people outside of the organisation, this behaviour is abnormal.

For example, when I was a consultant in a large MTC (Major Trauma Centre), I remember on occasions being in resus with several intubated patients and it felt like I was one of those street performers who would spin multiple plates on sticks, running to different sticks to keep the plates spinning. I vividly remember a resus nurse asking me when a patient was on their way to ICU, Neel how much noradrenaline do you want for him?. My answer: Oh god, I forgot he was on it!. With everything that was happening around me, I had subconsciously forgotten how sick that patient was. Now if I had two, instead of eight, patients in resus it would have been easier to keep a closer eye on them. Had being overwhelmed with tasks become “the norm” for me?

I remember as a registrar in 2010 it was unusual to have more than 80 patients in the ED on a Monday afternoon. Now it is becoming more frequent to have 100 or more patients in the ED at that time. The more it occurs, the more it will be seen to be the new normal.

The ED was not designed to have that many patients in the department. But as this happens we start to, very slightly, deviate from SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and departmental guidelines to try and manage the ED as safely as we can given the overcrowding. No adverse events occur.

Perhaps it starts with justifying to yourself not to review a patient that you would normally review because after all its in the limits of acceptable risk right?. You perceive your decision to be more justified when no harm comes to them. Other collegues will follow suit and a new normal way of working and managing the ED has been created.

Time will go on and more collegues will deviate from normal practice until something does go wrong. Ive heard about one hospital that put Corridor 1, Corridor 2 etc on their ED computer system as they were frequently using the corridors to place patients on trollies when the majors area was full. The practice of putting patients in corridors would then be perceived as being normal and justified.

Forget about how consultants can be affected by this. Think of how it can happen in your own line of work. Examples I can think of include:

1) Sending the patient home because the CT report or blood results are taking too long to come back and forgetting to check them.

2) Prescribing the wrong medication.

3) Not documenting blood results in the notes.

There are many more examples in healthcare where deviation from normal practice will not usually cause harm. Why do we do it then? A number of reasons probably, including:
  • Im breaking the rules for the good of my patient- Justification for rule deviation due to the perception that the standard is counterproductive.

  • Im afraid to speak up- People dont speak up when they see others deviating from standard practice. The more this happens the more likely the deviations will be normalised.

  • I didn’t know that was the protocol- People may not know what the protocols are or have been taught something which was a deviation from normal practice.

What are the answers? If I’m honest, I don’t know. Perhaps educating people so that they are aware of departmental protocols and guidelines, or making whistleblowing easier, or  having a top down approach might be the answer.

When it comes to deviations from SOPs, industries are sometimes a step ahead and the likes of Six Sigma would have one person employed to analyse these deviations in an organisation and bring them back in order. When talking about operating procedures that are not standardised, deviations which do not cause harm to patients may reap benefits by, for example, being a more efficient way about doing things, but this can be risky, especially because if we are doing things as seniors on the shop floor, we should be leading by example and therefore other colleagues may consider our actions the norm and replicate them in perhaps less suitable circumstances.

I don’t have all the answers. We are entering a time where there is ever increasing pressures on those working in the NHS, especially “at the coal face” in acute specialities like ED, ICU and Acute Medicine. The temptation to break rules is ever present. Is it right to have a black and white approach of saying “all deviations from normal practice are bad?”.  On the other hand should we be saying that “without carefully well thought out deviations from our standard way of working, change in practice for the patient’s benefit would not occur as readily.” I would love to hear your thoughts, in the meantime, I will leave you with this quote:




  1. Diane Vaughan and the normalisation of deviance.
  2. Six Sigma


  1. Kashif Hussain says:

    very good

  2. parkerr6291 says:

    Fascinating. I recall, a few months ago, hearing that corridor triage of an overcrowded department is now a ‘station’ on the FRCEM OSCE. It struck me as rather ridiculous and perverse; I think the phrase I used was “but that’s just normalising failure.” Even worse, by putting working in a failing system actually into our exams, we could be seen to be endorsing it.

  3. Juan Pedro says:

    So true it actually hurts.

  4. parkc says:

    You raise a widely shared concern. The insidious creep of gradual deviation from SOPs as a symptom of overcrowding and overwhelming workloads is a real risk in our EDs. In a major incident we have an agreed SOP which is accepted as different from our usual SOP. Current conditions sometimes mirror the issues of a major incident but such a description (which would permit and acknowledge the need for accepted deviation) for ‘every day’ overcrowding is unpalatable for our Trusts and the DH. As a consultant I endorse Lieutenant Morrison’s philosophy I also believe that in our current working conditions we have to educate our teams about the risks of cognitive error that are created by being forced to work differently – as with many examples in EM forewarned is forearmed.

  5. Quraitulain Fatima Zaidi says:

    many of us have found ourselves in the same predicament and without acknowledging it, deviance has become acceptable. I have seen consultant documentation being illegible and barely covering one page.This is during a busy time, while plowing through minor cases. Its all well and good if nothing goes wrong. But there are no guarantees are there ever ?

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