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Viruses, Germs and Errors: Why We Don’t Trust Hospitals

By Bushra Azhar

Hospitals are large, complicated, frightening places. I, for one, would rather moan, groan and complain my way through an illness than visit a hospital. I know a lot of people who have some degree of aversion towards a hospital visit and least of it is because the hospitals do not have an inviting presence. People will tell you that a hospital is a place of germs, viruses and disease and who wants to go to a dreary ghastly place like that when they feeling bad already?

This dislike, however, runs much deeper than that. Healthcare service providers over the years have failed to earn the trust of their patients, and community in general. They do focus on offering multiple medical specialties, and newer, shinier machines, but these things do not inspire the much coveted patient trust. Let's look at why hospitals are consistently and steadily failing patient expectations.

Medical Errors

In the era of WebMD, before seeing a doctor, people read up and often diagnose themselves of various complicated and unheard of diseases. The job of a doctor then is to not treat them like a brick wall but to consider them intelligent, insightful partners in the healing journey. The medical profession is notoriously well-known for its share of medical malpractice and/or misdiagnoses which is often followed by a badly orchestrated cover-up job. If the healthcare service providers want their patients to trust them, it makes sense for them to come clean about any mishaps. Like I mentioned here, medical errors are real and the mistrust of people will continue to rise unless hospitals take concrete steps to talk about where they fell short and how they plan to improve.

Infection and Cross-Contamination

This column in New York Times stuck a nerve with millions. It doesn’t only talk about the carelessness medical professionals exhibit toward effective infection control measures but also the sheer callousness and lack of accountability. What is sad is that hospital-acquired infections are completely preventable and in this excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Stephanie Simon talks about the new technologies that can significantly lower risk of infection and cross-contamination without being too hard on the bottom line.

Quality and Patient Safety

Whether it is trained medical staff or nurse/patient ratio, or simply a more efficient response, people expect on-your-toes care when they are sick. Sadly, hospitals often do not offer anything remotely close. A 1999 article in The Independent talks about how nurse fatigue and stress can have a devastating impact on quality of care and patient safety. The article may be more than a decade old but some of the issues mentioned there still prevail. Hospitals suffer from severe staff shortages and overtime is a routine matter. In countries where regulators do not take a firm stance on patient safety, the level of trust is much lower in patients. A survey titled The Working Hours of Hospital Staff Nurses and Patient Safety which was conducted  on 4,320 members of the American Nurses Association (ANA), revealed that hospital staff nurses worked longer than scheduled daily and more than half of the shifts worked exceeded ten and a half hours.

What Can Hospitals Do to Gain Trust?

  1. Talk to them, not AT them: Having a Patient Rights and Responsibilities booklet on your website or at patient bedside is not enough. There needs to be a clear two-way dialogue between the patient and the caregiver on multiple occasions during the stay. The dialogue should ask for their input on the quality of care and any grievances. It is amazing how much trouble can be avoided by just talking to people and listening to them.

  2. Come Clean. Own Up: Like any other business, things can go wrong in a hospital, too, but unlike other businesses, here a mistake can cost a life. To ensure that there are as few lapses as possible is an operational issue but to gain trust, it is important to come clean about what went wrong and to take remedial steps.

  3. Get Accredited: It is human nature to feel reassured when we know that someone has our back. This is exactly the purpose accrediting authorities like Joint Commission International (JCI) and Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS) serve. For countries where the government regulated healthcare is not trust worthy enough, these accreditations give a certain degree of comfort to patients.

  4. Go Beyond Healthcare: A healthcare service provider needs to understand the importance of winning hearts over, and go beyond the call of duty.  Hospitals play an integral role in community protection through wider public health issues, including injury and illness prevention, health awareness, disease identification and disaster management. Addressing these issues at community level helps to position the hospital as someone who cares and people trust those they know care about them.
Bushra Azhar is the founder of Good Business Sense, a CSR and Sustainability Knowledge Advisory based in the Middle East. She is the author of a research study examining the growth of CSR in Saudi Arabia and is also responsible for developing three out of a total of 6 CSR reports released in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her latest publication “The Concise Dictionary of CSR: Simple, Practical, No-Nonsense Introduction to the Main Concepts” is available for free on her company website. You can follow her on Twitter @bushraazhar.

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