Imagine having to go to the hospital tomorrow for a procedure that the doctors tell you is simple and practically risk-free. You’re not worried. Your loved ones are not worried.
The trouble is, the procedure ends up killing you. Through some mistake or miscommunication or broken link in the healthcare system, you die while receiving what ought to be a low-risk medical treatment.
This scenario is not nearly as uncommon as it should be. However, there is a rising tide of activism and reform coming from those who suffer such incidents. Consumers Advancing Patient Safety (CAPS) is one of the many groups involved in such work. Among their other activities, they invite those who have suffered through breakdowns in the healthcare system to share their stories with CAPS so they can reach a wider audience and help each other to understand that what happened to them was not a fluke but an indication of systemic flaws.
The most recent such story CAPS has published is an interview with Helen Haskell, who in 2000 lost her 15-year-old son Lewis Blackman to a medical error caused by an inappropriate medication given during a relatively routine surgery.
The chief point to take away from Helen Haskell’s story is that there are multiple levels of doctors in a hospital. Lewis was mostly treated by residents, who are fully trained doctors in the sense that they have graduated from medical school, but are still considered in training for whatever specialty they have chosen. Care by residents is standard and safe-but when Helen wanted to speak to a more senior doctor, she was unable to do so. Hospital bureaucracy can get in the way of patients getting the information they need. In addition, patients can often get confused about who is treating them and at what level of training that person is: is he or she a nurse, or a medical student, or a resident, or an intern, or a fellow? It is not always easy to tell.
Another key point is the concept of “rapid response teams” that can be called in if a patient or family member believes that something seriously wrong is happening. Helen Haskell believes such a team would certainly have saved her son’s life. In any case, it would give patients recourse if their concerns are ignored.