Patient Suffering and Medical Care

In hospital settings, it was an unchallenged assumption that patient suffering was directly proportionate to a diagnosis. However, the assumption is now being challenged.
A front page NY Times article notes that Dr. Kenneth Sands, the chief quality officer at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston is exploring other aspects of patient suffering that are tangentially related to medical care. According to the Times’ article, “Dr. Sands and his colleagues decided to start by asking their own patients what made them suffer. They found several categories. Communications — for example, a doctor blurting out, ‘Oh, it looks like you have cancer.’ Or losing a valuable, like a wedding ring. Or loss of privacy — a doctor discussing a patient’s medical condition where an adjacent patient could hear. ‘These are harms,’ Dr. Sands said. ‘They elicit suffering. They can be long lasting, and they currently are largely unquantified, uncounted, unrecorded.’” Perhaps more importantly, they affect the patient’s recovery in ways that have heretofore been undocumented and ignored in terms of quality patient care. This category of suffering comes under the heading of “inattentive care” and takes seriously the damaging effects of failures in communication and the tendency to treat the patient as a problem rather than a person. Many medical malpractice cases arise because the patient believes he or she was mistreated, ignored, or devalued. Dr. Sands is correct in noting that this issue is as important as medication errors, hospital-acquired infections, or medical errors.