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Opinion: The Ill Effects of Miscommunication in Healthcare

The following editorial was written by Briarcliff High School student Rachel Smedley.

“Baked Lays” were the only words that my grandfather could say when he got out of brain surgery in 2009. He had 40 staples in his skull, when my family, including my grandfather himself, was expecting a stitch or two. He also could not speak, write, walk, or perform basic functions with his hands, when we were expecting that he would be able to perform normally. Today, my grandfather is still suffering from the consequences of a surgery that went wrong due to miscommunication.

When my grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer, he was a social butterfly and an accomplished financial strategist, and while he was determined to get healthy again, removing part of his brain and skull was not on his agenda. For the weeks prior to the surgery, the doctor had planned to perform a burr hole biopsy, the size of a quarter. The day before the surgery, the doctor decided it would be better to remove the entire tumor, and he neglected to fully explain the extent of the operation to my grandfather. When signing the consent form, my grandfather believed he was confirming a minimal brain incision, but due to lack of communication, he signed the consent for a full-blown craniotomy. My grandfather’s condition did not require such an extensive surgery to save his life, and his final condition was avoidable. Although the doctor performed the craniotomy correctly, my grandfather was merely unaware of the fact that he was signing the consent for such a debilitating surgery, and lost his ability to live on his own.

Along with millions of other people, my grandfather’s life was significantly impacted by miscommunication in healthcare. Failure to communicate among doctors, patients, administration, pharmacists and family members leads to medication errors and detrimental events, such as unexpected death and serious injury. According to Meghan Stimmel, these preventable mistakes are known to be the eighth leading cause of death in the United States and account for 7,000 deaths per year. Adverse drug effects (ADE’s), which are caused by written or verbal miscommunication among healthcare providers, affect 1.3 million Americans every year, risking patient health and provider credibility. Among these medical errors, 50 percent of them are permanent, such as scarring, stroke, or termination of pregnancy, and miscommunication is the root cause of them all.

Within healthcare, there are countless areas where miscommunication between providers and patients can significantly impact the patient’s well-being. Not all computer systems between different hospitals are compatible, and the inability to access critical patient information found on paper at other locations leads to issues, according to Neil Baum. Bernie Monegain stated that an estimated 80 percent of serious medical errors arise due to miscommunication between caregivers when patients and records are transferred due to incomplete information and due to lack of opportunity for the caregivers to speak because they’re too busy. Nowadays, doctors have a very high caseload and only get to see patients for five to 10 minutes to discuss treatment, as opposed to the recommended 30 minutes. Without adequate one-on-one time with patients, it’s hard for doctors and patients to understand the entirety of a patient’s situation and treatment.

There are also numerous conflicts due to interpretation errors. There have been countless instances when the wrong body parts or sides of the body are operated on or removed. Interpretations of illegible handwriting also lead to serious consequences, including death, when pharmacists fill prescriptions with the wrong drug. Baum wrote about how a doctor in Texas was charged with negligence in the cause of a patient’s death when his illegible handwriting was misinterpreted by a pharmacist. The patient suffered from a fatal heart attack after his prescription was filled with Plendil, used to treat high blood pressure, rather than Isordil, used to treat angina. Doctors may cut corners and have assistants perform duties that they themselves are legally obligated to do, and leading professionals may demonstrate disruptive behavior towards their staff through verbal abuse or condescending attitudes. When this happens, the essential teamwork and collaboration of a healthcare group breaks down leading to the lack of or miscommunication, which hinders a patient’s safety, according to Stimmel.

Over-medication, duplicate medication, operations on the wrong areas, drug interactions and reactions, increased time in the hospital and cost of care, delays, and inappropriate treatment, such as dispensing drugs at the wrong time or rate, through the wrong route, or to the wrong patient, are all errors that can lead to significant impacts on a patient’s life. They are also all preventable through proper communication in healthcare. Healthcare is a part of everyone’s lives at one point or another, and we have a right to know that the communication regarding our health is efficient and accurate. We also have a responsibility to ask questions and fully understand treatment, and to entirely inform doctors of any relevant information that could impact the provided healthcare.

My grandfather’s incident not only heavily impacted his own life, but it greatly changed the lives of the people who love him. My family and I always make time to visit him or bring him food, but he spends the majority of his time alone watching television. A once lively, active man, whom I love unconditionally, is now home bound and dependent on his family and friends, due to mistakes that could have prevented by simply communicating effectively. 

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