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Fix it, when you know it’s broke

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Nothing quite piques your desire to help create a new healthcare system more than seeing it fail your loved ones. When the problem lands on your doorstep, you know it’s time for change, not in a decade or a year, but today or tomorrow. In my case, the problem landed on my doorstep when my mother, at age 89, was failed by the UK National Health Service (NHS).

Failures in the system are everywhere; partial failure is actually the norm for most people. It’s certainly not unique to the UK; in the US, the fractured system of public and private insurers and care facilities makes the type of problems encountered by my mother all the more likely.

An individual’s successes and positive experiences with healthcare, which often coexist alongside failures, are usually down to the commitment of some incredible people, whether they’re doctors, nurses or other care providers, who are doing their best to deliver the highest level of care, even within a framework that is deeply inadequate, flawed, inefficient, badly managed or just plain underfunded.

Many of these healthcare providers got into their professions in the first place because they care deeply about people, and over their careers, they didn’t get corrupted or turned into agents of the pharmaceutical industry, whose key responsibility is to blindly fill prescriptions.   

These positive experiences are enough to make many people think the system is worth fighting for. Healthcare is often at the top of the political agenda, and not only in the UK, where the “NHS crisis,” as it’s often referred to these days, became a leading issue during last year’s general election.

The impact of chronic disease and an aging population on healthcare is a hot topic worldwide and in the US in particular, where the high cost of health care has dominated recent election cycles.

Getting back to my mother’s recent experiences, it was just a few days ago that a leading orthopedic surgeon told me, “The NHS is completely broken.”

This comment was offered sincerely, and followed his discovery that none of her imaging, including X-rays, CT and MRI scans, had been transferred either to him or to my mother’s medical record from the radiology departments of two hospitals that had done the work—even after we had been assured that all the images would be sent well in advance of this appointment.

He told us this was the norm, and the resources simply aren’t in place to make things happen as they should.  He then explained what we needed to do—in effect, to camp out outside the two hospitals and inform the bureaucrats and radiologists responsible that we are not going to leave until we have the images.

This process is ongoing, and only time will tell what happens, but it is beyond ridiculous in this second decade of the new millennium for patients to not have full access to their medical records. It is also impossible for citizens (who will all eventually be patients, too) to be empowered if they don’t have full access to all aspects of their medical history.

When my mother was hospitalized after a fall, she was given an emergency partial hip replacement. She nearly died shortly after the operation, given the shock to the system and her weak heart.

The gerontologist told us we should be prepared for the worst, that she was the sickest person in the ward.  But I was convinced she was giving up because the environment, the ward into which she’d been placed, was not giving her a strong enough reason to be alive.

The three patients she shared it with were up wailing all night due to their dementia and sundowning, and I used every element of persuasion to convince the doctor in charge she should be transferred.

Eventually he caved to my pressure, although he insisted her environment wouldn’t make much of a difference, and we should just accept that she might not make it. Fortunately, my mother made a spectacular recovery once her environment was changed and she was able to sleep and rest.

We’re now dealing with the fact that her partial hip replacement was done so badly, her foot is turned out, and the nerves in her leg have been damaged permanently. We have not been able to establish who the surgeon was, even after a week in the hospital. None of the nurses or doctors were able to tell us the surgeon’s name.

There’s also major swelling and pain in her other hip caused by bone fragments left behind during surgery. It all requires more work by overstretched health professionals, some more or less competent than others. More time, more resources, more taxpayer money. Most of it unnecessary.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the problems we’ve encountered with my mother’s recent experiences. But it’s been an eye-opener, and I find myself more motivated than ever to see to fruition the new approach to health system sustainability we’ve been developing over the last decade.

Find out more about our Health Sustainability
Blueprint campaign at www.anhinternational.org.

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