Have you heard about a friend, a family member, or a work mate whose medical care was so poorly administered that its consequences were life threatening or lethal? I think we all have.
- A 54 year old man who has a lower extremity operation but because he “appears” in good health is not given blood thinners to prevent blood clots. He dies on Father’s day from a deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. (Today, most hospitals administer blood thinners after orthopedic surgery as part of their standards of practice.
- A 47 year old woman is diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the breast, has both breast removed. When asked if she needs to be followed with mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI’s, medicine or visits with an oncologist she is told “We got it all”. Ten years later, when the patient presents with shortness of breath and literally drowning in lung fluid, she is diagnosed with stage four, metastatic breast cancer to the lungs and back.
- A 29 year old mother of two presents with chronic abdominal pain is hospitalized and studied for 26 days. She is discharged with a diagnosis of undetermined pain. Four months later she is re-admitted with the same pain and tests now confirm that there is a mass which was seen during the prior hospitalization but felt to be non-malignant because of her age is diagnosed as adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. It is too large to operate. Chemotherapy will be utilized to shrink the tumor. Surgery will then be performed with more chemotherapy to follow.
- A 60 year old woman presents with severe, unremitting headaches. Ten days of testing, an initial diagnosis of an embolism which is later disproved, and enough morphine to put the patient in a drug induced stupor, no answers are found. Her son in law who is a pharmaceutical representative comes home from a business trip and asks if the patient might suffer from “cluster headaches” and if so, would a particular heart drug help. Doctors agree, the drug is administered and the woman finds relief from pain for the first time in two weeks.
Shakes your faith in medicine, doesn’t it? We’ve all heard the horror stories. We get angry at the lack of care, frustrated at the ineptitude, insecure that it could happen to any of us, and exhausted thinking about how to handle our own medical adversity. I confess that on more than one occasion I have been known to lose my religion and think of terrible things to do to the doctors who failed “Do No Harm, 101”.
What we need to remind ourselves is that with all the medical advancements, the education, knowledge, the state of the art equipment and pharmaceuticals, doctors are –
As humans, errors can be made. Their lives are filled with the same issues you and I face at home and in the work place. They may have health issues of their own or caring for a family member who is ill. There may be marital, financial and children issues that are impinging on their ability as a healthcare professional. They may have lost focus on the case. A particular case may remind them of their family members struggle with the same disease, thus preventing them from being a good diagnostician. Insurance coverage, lack of physician coverage, and no time for continuing education can all be factors in errors made during a patient’s medical care. The list goes on. I am not making excuses for poor quality of care. I’m just pointing out that physicians are no different than you and me except that they have been educated in their field of study.
So what is a patient to do?
What we can do is to be vigilant, to ask questions even if they think we are questioning their abilities and knowledge. We are. This is a test. And if you fail this test, we will seek other counsel (teachers). Second opinions should be sought when there is doubt or inconclusiveness. If a physician is upset by your request for a second opinion then this is NOT the doctor for you.
While each of these stories is but a few we must remember that millions of patients are cured, helped, and restored to healthy living. Doctors chose their profession to help and not harm. Most cases have a happy ending. We must not dwell on what happened that was wrong, but where do we go from here? What can we do to make it better, to improve and to insure that quality care is given?
We need to remember that these bodies were given to us by God and he entrusts us to take good care of them. Do not ignore the changes in our bodies, the pain, the lump, the rash, the discharge. Learn all that you can about your body, about health issues, the health industry and what constitutes good quality of care.
S.A.F.E. Seek, ask, find, execute and be safe!
We must be part of the practice of health care. While we pay our healthcare professionals for their time, knowledge and expertise, we afford them the ability to continue to learn from us! It is our job to be in partnership with our physicians so that the best quality of care continues to be at the forefront of their daily practice.
It is the mutual accountability that makes for successful healthcare.