Monday, February 4, 2013
Today, the Boston Globe ran an interview with Dr. Jonathan Welch, a Boston-based emergency room doctor who wrote an essay in Health Affairs about a harrowing experience - witnessing a medical error that led to his mother's death. She was suffering from a systemic infection when she was admitted to her hometown hospital in Wisconsin. Despite Dr. Welch's exhortations, it took nearly 24 hours for the hospital to start the protocol that may have saved her life. It ended up being too late.
If a family member who is a well-trained physician wasn't able to get hospital staff to listen, what hope would the rest of us have had? Instead of suing, Dr. Welch and his family decided to simply help the hospital understand their experience and make changes that would prevent the same type of error in the future. The hospital did address some of the family's concerns, but leadership's response was ultimately unsatisfying. The hospital never really apologized to Dr. Welch's family, leaving them with a decided lack of closure - not a very compassionate way to treat anyone, but especially the family of a patient who received sub-par care.
We talk a lot about patient-centered communication in the context of the doctor-patient relationship, but institutions have the same obligation. If we’re going to make clinicians more compassionate, we have to make our systems - whether they are hospitals, physician practices, insurers, home health agencies, etc - more humanistic as well.
And on a related note: Dr. Welch's mother was in treatment for cancer when she contracted the infection that ended her life. Today is World Cancer Day, a day that seeks to raise awareness of cancer and encourage its prevention, detection and treatment. This day also has special meaning for us here at the Schwartz Center since our founder, Ken Schwartz, died of lung cancer in 1995.