We Need More Patients and Families Speaking Up for Safer Hospitals

More and more families are giving voice to hospital horror stories so that what happened to their loved ones, and mine, does not happen again.

Standing up for safer care after a hospital has inflicted harm is never easy for a family. In many cases, the patient does not get to be part of that discussion because the damage to them is severe and often fatal. Karl and Marlene Kollinger, the elderly couple who have gone public with their experience at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, were among the fortunate ones. It could have cost Mr. Kollinger his life after he was given medication intended for another patient. They say they came forward to help others avoid similar mishaps by making the hospital exercise greater caution in the future. Hopefully, this hospital will be more forthcoming about the incident than the two that were entrusted with my elderly mother’s care a few years back.

At one major Toronto hospital, neglect and over-sedation caused a cardiac arrest that left her permanently disabled. The same kind of inattention encountered by the Kollingers also resulted in my mother developing ventilator-associated pneumonia. These incidents were troubling enough. What was worse was that this giant icon of the Canadian healthcare system evaded responsibility for years, lied about what happened and used those lies to blame my family for a shocking series of adverse events.

Later, in a community hospital closer to her home, my mother was subjected to thousands of medical errors, from the improper administration of drugs by mouth when she could not swallow to the repeated failure to follow procedures to treat pressure ulcers and prevent life-threatening aspiration pneumonia, both of which she acquired while there. Medication was regularly prepared by nursing staff in a busy hospital hallway using water from a dirty bathroom sink. Required services and tests were often denied. It took 24 hours to have a doctor examine her after a major convulsive seizure.

Rather than addressing my family’s concerns, this hospital denied any errors ever occurred and claimed my mother’s care was completely appropriate. The hospital then used scarce public health care dollars (at the same time it was closing hospital beds and cutting staff) to hire an expensive Toronto law firm which threatened to sue the family if any of our experience was made public. It actually commenced defamation proceedings but was forced to back off after a rare intervention by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which accused the hospital of improperly attempting to muzzle a family on a subject about which there is considerable interest in a democratic society.

When a hospital refuses to look into the harm it causes patients or lies to cover it up, it fails to learn from its mistakes and places others patients at risk as a result. This is one of the reasons why hospital “errors” are the third-leading cause of death in Canada, while thousands more are injured each year. The vast majority of these incidents are preventable. And while not every Canadian will know someone who has been tragically impacted by this epidemic of hospital harm, they are nevertheless paying for its very large and avoidable cost with their tax dollars.

Nobody takes on a hospital or embarks on a campaign for safer care without good reason. There are a whole range of institutions and resources that are stacked against you, from big law firms to hospital patient relations departments which are there mainly to do management’s bidding. Don’t even think about trying to get anywhere with a hospital’s board of directors. There seems to be some unwritten rule in Canada that no matter how urgent or justified the matter, a hospital board will never respond to the pleas of a family seeking answers.

That was the experience of Maria Daskalos and her family who have spent years searching for accountability in connection with their mother’s avoidable death in a Toronto hospital in 2011. They have yet to find it. But they have attempted to bring justice to their mother’s name — which is movingly reflected by their use of her photo on their Facebook and Twitter pages — by becoming tireless advocates for greater hospital oversight. As a result, the Ontario government recently announced its intention to create a new patient ombudsman.

The Daskalos family, Mr. and Mrs. Kollinger and so many others know how important it is to change the culture that leads to so much preventable injury and death in Canadian hospitals and causes incalculable loss and suffering to far too many families.

Thank goodness these voices are determined to be heard in a cause that benefits everyone. They put most of our political leaders and healthcare policy makers to shame.

Published in The Huffington Post April 5, 2014.