Don’t Accept Medical Errors as the Standard of Care for Frail Elders

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By Joanne Lynn, MD

If you are hoping for a good night’s sleep, don’t read the stories told by Marcy Cottrell Houle of her parents’ last years of life just before you go to bed. But do read The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents from the Perils of Modern Healthcare [http://www.thegiftofcaring.net/], which Houle wrote with geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom over a cup of coffee. That will get you fired up. The litany of catastrophes that occur in our poorly organized medical care system—preventable, avoidable suffering—is overwhelming. So far, though, no one is listening. No one is reacting in horror, and no one is changing the system to stop these errors. We need to turn up the volume of our protests!

Marcy’s father was once abruptly discharged from the hospital to a nursing home that lost him! The nursing home put him in a room at the end of a hall and simply forgot he was there! No hygiene, no food—nothing was provided for him. In fact, the staff forgot to give him water for so long that he developed renal failure. He was later drugged to manage his behavior, which was eventually traced to pain, readily treated with acetaminophen. His case spiraled on and on.

Marcy’s mother had all the geriatric complications: delirium, falls, anti-coagulation, terrible aides. Worse still were her run-ins with physicians who wouldn’t pause to make sense of sudden changes in mental status, because they just assigned every dysfunction to “old age” and “dementia,” even when her mother had been functioning quite well just a day before.

Yes, it’s all there, terrible and terrifying. Dr. Eckstrom writes a chapter after every calamity about how patients and families might prevent or cope better. The book is a rare gem to help people who must navigate our “care system” for frail older people.

But it is maddening.

If you bought a toy that fell apart in a dangerous way, you could report it to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and they’d investigate. If a person has a near miss from a safety defect in a car, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to hear about it immediately. If a medication causes a serious side effect, the Food and Drug Administration has a consumer online reporting form. Indeed, any of these and more pop up when I search online. But just try reporting that your dad was lost in a nursing home. You have to be knowledgeable enough to find the ombudsman program or the Quality Improvement Network or know a lawyer willing to threaten to sue in order to call attention to a grave mistake.

The problems in care of the elderly are not just “errors” in the usual sense of unusual mistakes. In fact, they are baked right into our current delivery system. The errors are not just a nurse or aide slipping up on some critical step. Instead, all the nurses and aides and everyone else are working in a system that is so dysfunctional that actions that cause pain or neglect are not even called out as errors. Consider that I can go up to an ATM in the remote wilderness somewhere in the world, and the banking system will know whether I have money in my account; but if I am discharged from the hospital, my community physician won’t know anything about what happened to me in the hospital, often even if she’s been my physician for years and I told the hospital folks this.

Think about the profound errors that are made when medical professionals simply have no idea what matters to patients and their loved ones. They never ask! For example, consider two men living with the same advanced degree of disability from Parkinson’s disease. One might want to spend anything and do whatever is necessary in order to survive long enough to finish a personal project, while the other might really want not to leave his spouse impoverished. The second man might feel at peace with the fact that life is coming to its end and even to feel OK with letting it end a bit early in order to have things fall into place for those he loves.

Today, emergency room staff do not know any of this because of the way in which we have put this system together. Both these men experiencing a sudden deterioration, however, would have to use the emergency room, because we don’t have 24/7 on-call physicians organized to come to their homes. We don’t even have home-delivered meals for many elderly persons in need in most of the country; the waiting lists are routinely more than 6 months long, because we have not chosen to fund the Older Americans Act adequately.

What are we doing? And how can we complain effectively? Each family somehow believes that its situation is bad luck or “how things are.” There is no benchmark by which to set expectations, so the families accept the errors, dysfunctions, suffering, and impoverishment that so often come with disabilities in old age. Why are the errors of our system not being debated or even mentioned in political campaigns? How can we change this?

We can start by changing our abysmal expectations of the services that we get. Let’s question why the care system is so deaf to the priorities of our loved ones everywhere we can—in the newspapers, in the candidate debates, through social media. Let’s reengineer current services, build highly reliable care systems in our communities, and see what it really costs. Projections for the costs of a community-anchored care system that is person centered and flexible enough to bring most services into the home are not much different from current care arrangements. Let’s record stories, good and bad. Let’s figure out how family caregivers can become politically powerful. Why is it, for example, that Medicare has no standing advisory committee speaking for the interests of its millions of beneficiaries? If we are lucky, we will grow old. So it’s our future, too, not just our parents’!

We’ve started an initiative to get family caregiver issues on the party platforms in all states that generate party platforms. You can join the Family Caregiver Platform Project initiative. It takes very little time and gets leaders talking. Go to http://caregivercorps.org to sign up now.

There are some bright spots on which we can build: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has introduced payment for advanced care planning discussions between Medicare beneficiaries and their physicians. We agree that this is a good idea and strongly support it. But care planning is not just an end-of-life matter; it needs to be comprehensive and a standard practice. All health care providers and social services agencies should pursue the goals that the elder and family actually most want. We invite you to read our MediCaring blog for more of our comments on this proposal: http://medicaring.org/2015/08/25/comments-on-payment-for-advance-care-planning.

What else can you think of? We need other leverage points that would focus the pent-up frustration of millions of family members who have already witnessed the misery of ordinary elder care. What should have been available to Marcy as she helped her parents live their last years? Hers is a story that we can all absorb and tell others; then we can go out and insist that our care system change. Eventually, Marcy and her family found some exceptional paid caregivers, and together they achieved some good experiences, even triumphs. But this came after needless suffering. She would say that she’s lucky, and others would say that she’s especially skilled and capable. Most of us need a care system that does not require exceptionally skilled and capable family members or good luck. Read her book, and help us push for a care system that works reliably for our old age!

1 comments on “Don’t Accept Medical Errors as the Standard of Care for Frail Elders”

  1. Thanks, Joanne, for this call to action. Every example you give, I’m very sad to say, rings true. Or at least every example except for Marcy’s father being “lost” at the end of the hall and not even given food or water, though even that I’m very sad to say is all too believable. But in some ways we all have the health care system we deserve, in the sense that we only have it because we collectively have tolerated having it. Everything you describe will continue to happen until we collectively insist that it stop. And it shouldn’t be hard to organize people’s voices in ways that can catalyze change, not just at the policy level, but at the individual facility level. When I am wondering where to go for a meal or lodging, for almost any place that exists I can immediately read online comments (from TripAdvisor or Yelp or other review sites) from dozens (sometimes hundreds) of people who have been there before. And increasingly, any time someone describes a negative experience, there is a comment soon after from staff at the place apologizing, AND explaining what they are going to do to make sure that no one else ever has that negative experience again. But if later comments don’t suggest improvements actually happened, I stay away. This doesn’t take a heavy-handed, complex, and expensive regulatory bureaucracy (though there is a place for regulatory oversight).

    But whatever the mechanisms for engaging patient/family voices in driving change, we need much, much more of that, right away, and forever. It’s not just us and our loved ones who are needlessly suffering, every penny that is being spent is _our own_ money — whether through our taxes or our health insurance premium or the money our employers deduct from our paychecks to cover our “benefits”.

    My only caution is a plea NOT to focus on blaming individuals on the front lines for the problems. Most of them care as much as we do, or at least did before their jobs burned them out, working in dysfunctional systems that make effective care so hard to deliver. Most of them would much rather work in effective systems, and would much rather be able to go home after each day or each night of work justifiably proud of the way they cared for people.

    Lachlan Forrow, MD
    Director, Ethics Programs
    Director, Palliative Care Programs
    Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
    Harvard Medical School

    Like

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