Today is Rare Disease Day. I love Rare Disease Day. I’ve loved it for a long time. Usually I try to blog something upbeat, useful, and inspiring (2014, 2013, 2013b, 2012), but that’s not what’s going to happen today. Today it is time for a sad, disturbing story; one of stigma, assumptions, miscommunication, misunderstanding, anger, hurt, laughter, pain; all nicely wrapped up as a great example of social media gone wrong.
Something I know from personal experience is that when someone has an undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or mismanaged health care condition, they tend to get to a point where they spend an unusual amount of time in the Emergency Room. These are, shall we say, usually not a person’s happiest moments. People with rare conditions are more likely than not to have gone through a period of time in which their condition was not properly diagnosed. There are excellent reasons for this, with the largest one being that clinicians are taught explicitly to err on the side of assuming their patients are relatively ordinary, rather than extraordinary or unusual, or rare. This is included in medical slang as the word “zebra,” implying that people’s diagnoses are more likely to be a “horse.”
Thus, the patient who genuinely IS rare, while statistically unlikely to appear under the care of any particular healthcare provider is rather more likely to have experienced a great deal of misguided, inappropriate, and ineffective care. They are also likely to have experienced these trained-in assumptions presenting in uncomfortable ways which undermine them as a credible person, from “if you’d just try” to plain old rudeness to being told “it’s all in your mind.” And when healthcare professionals find it hard to believe the suffering person, often their friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances follow suit. These comments, rarely intended to be hurtful, but hurtful nonetheless, have been being captured via Twitter with the hashtag #heardwhilstdisabled.
Twitter: Heard Whilst Disabled: https://twitter.com/hashtag/heardwhilstdisabled?src=hash
I learn a lot about compassion and the real lives of persons with chronic illness from conversations on Twitter, on Facebook, and from lurking in support groups for various conditions. Usually, I joined the group when I myself was misdiagnosed with some condition, as part of my own rare disease journey (although mine turns out not to be so terribly rare, just rarely diagnosed). There are a lot of these groups, countless ones. Even just looking for chronic pain groups on Facebook, there are easily close to 100 of them! In these groups (and on Twitter, and in other social media spaces), something that comes up almost every day are stories of someone who went to the emergency room, and was unable to get the care they believed they needed and deserved because they were assumed to be a) drug seeking; b) attention seeking; c) misrepresenting their symptoms; d) liars; e) mental health patients (which is too often interpreted as not a credible reporter, or the pain “is all in your head”); f) that they don’t really have the condition they say they have; g) … well, it goes on and on.
Yesterday, in one of these support groups, someone alerted the rest of the group to a blogpost written last week by an emergency room nurse that has taken off in a rather viral way. And it is spreading. People are sharing the post to other support groups. Patients are up in arms. They are complaining to her employer. They’ve phoned her supervisor. They are filing official complaints. It’s all a nasty piece of business. Meanwhile, the nurse in question posted the link to her own Facebook page in a jocular way, with public viewing permissions, and various healthcare colleagues and friends have gone to town with it, joking, sending virtual high-fives, and sharing it. Widely. Lots of comments and around 50 shares. The blogpost itself has, as of this writing, well over 115,000 views, according to the counter on the page. Just to make it even more … awkward, the blogpost itself and the comments on the Facebook post both imply that this was written while the nurse was on duty at her job, as triage nurse in the Emergency Room.
OK, brace yourself. Here’s the post that has the patient communities so upset, and the nursing community so entertained.
Wainwright-Morrison, Kimberley. Confessions of an ER Nurse: This is probably your fault, not mine. Feb. 23, 2015. http://www.kimberlywainwright-morrison.com/413380011/2549810/posting/confessions-of-an-er-nurse-this-is-probably-your-fault-not-mine
Where does this go wrong? In the title, as soon as the word “fault” is used. “Fault” implies “blame.” Placing blame is a great way to attract blame. It immediately creates an us vs. them mentality. Because this is written by a nurse, the title alone will tend to push patients to feel defensive, and to likely misunderstand the intended message of the post. If the point of the post is to actually change patient understanding of the emergency room protocols, policies, and capabilities, it needs a new title. If the goal is to change patient behaviors, ditto. Some of the (presumed) nurses on Facebook suggested giving every patient a copy of this post at the triage desk. Hmmm, might want to rewrite it a bit first.
The focus of the Wainwright-Morrison post is on the non-compliant patient, a topic which is kind of a pet peeve of mine. Not to diverge too much (and I’ll try to make a separate post on ‘noncompliance’), I’ve been writing about this for a very long time. In our 2002 book, I argued in favor of the idea that “patients have reasons for being non-compliant,” that calling patients non-compliant is actually patient-blaming and unproductive, and that informed consent implies people deserve the right to make decisions which the experts might not agree with.
“Our personal belief is that it is neither realistic nor ethical to attempt to control or proscribe access to health information. Nor is it realistic or ethical to legislate or prescribe what health care consumers do with health information once they find it.” PF Anderson. “Introduction: Empowering Patients.” Anderson & Allee. Medical Library Association Encyclopedic Guide to Searching and Finding Health Information on the Web.
The problem with the term “non-compliant” is that as soon as that phrase enters the conversation it places blame for the patient’s problems on the patient themselves. It also absolves the healthcare system of the need to find out why the patient isn’t “complying.” Did they not understand the directions? Did they understand but disagree with the instructions? Does the patient believe that a different medicine or treatment would be more appropriate? Does the patient have the support system in place that would make that treatment even possible? Could they not afford the medicines? Could they not get to the pharmacy? Could they not arrange delivery? Did they believe that they already have another medicine they think will do as well? Did they take the medicines at the wrong day/time/place? In the blogpost, there is a stated assumption (judgment?) that if a patient “can’t afford” the medicine, that they are actually lying and choosing to instead spend money on other optional pleasures.
“It is not appropriate for you to save your last $30 for your manicure or your beer or your cigarettes. You can afford a prescription. MAKE IT WORK. Everyone else has to take care of themselves; I think you can also manage.”
Which leads to more questions — does the patient actually have the executive function capabilities that would allow them to control the impulses and “make the right choice”? Is the pain or disability or condition effecting on their memory? Did the healthcare provider explain things in a way that the patient actually understood? Did they confirm that understanding? Did the patient just nod and say, “Yes,” whether they understood or not?
Now, despite my admitted bias against a focus on the “non-compliant patient,” part of what drives me in this direction is in an effort to counterbalance the enormous numbers of folk actually working in healthcare who feel the opposite. I suspect that deep down, we are saying the same things, just in different ways, but the way you say a thing, the way an issue is framed, can completely change how it is heard, how solutions are designed, and how effective those solutions might be. And obviously, there are a LOT more people who feel differently than I do about the idea of calling patients non-compliant. Most of them have hearts as big as all outdoors, and they GENUINELY really want to help patients and help make their lives better.
Which is the case for Ms. Wainwright-Morrison. She is a good person. She loves her job. She means well. She works hard. She tries to make a difference in ways that count. She tries to help people, both at work and on her own time. She takes time outside of work to help multiple charities; she is on the coordinating team for “Giving More” a non-profit focused on helping those in need. In her bio on the Giving More site, Ms. Wainwright-Morrison describes herself as “passionate about educating her patient population in regards to making their health and compliance a priority in their lives.” I respect that. I respect what I believe she is trying to do, hoping to accomplish. I do not feel that this particular blogpost succeeds in moving those goals forward.
In the patient forums, I’ve been reading post after post that takes the blogpost apart, line by line, example by example. Patients are telling story after heartbreaking or uplifting story of times when what happened in the emergency room in their lives does not match the descriptions provided by Ms. Wainwright-Morrison. Patients with the conditions she explicitly addressed (such as high blood pressure and sickle cell anemia) were particularly offended.
On the other hand, there are many other nurses, healthcare providers, and emergency room workers are emphatic that the blogpost accurately describes some common categories of patients. Many feel strongly that Ms. Wainwright-Morrison is being honest, accurate, and should be protected from the public outcry against the blogpost.
One particularly sad bit of collateral damage from this was a nurse with chronic pain in one of the support groups. She tried to explain to the other patients in the forum that what is described in the blogpost reflects standard policy in most Emergency Rooms, that there is a HUGE disconnect between what patients expect from the ER visit and what ER teams are actually allowed to do. She also explained that nurses tend to stick together, because they understand what they go through in their job, something that may not be understood by either patients or doctors. For this, she was banned from the support group. This breaks my heart.
So, this is sad, sad, sad, all the way around. Patients are hurt. Nurses are hurt. The reputation of the hospital is being hurt. The structure and nature of the support group(s) is/are being damaged. I don’t see anyone coming out ahead with this the way it is taking shape right now. It’s a lose-lose all the way around. People are on the attack or on the defensive. The conversation is polarized, instead of becoming collaborative and solution-focused.
I do NOT want to see Ms. Wainwright-Morrison lose her job, unlike some others, because this is a problem that is rampant throughout healthcare, because she was and is being encouraged to hold these opinions by the culture of her institution. I would like to see solutions being focused at an institutional level instead of individuals. Just because these opinions could cause serious reputation problems for her and her institution does not mean that making her a scapegoat would be a productive path to follow. Actually, I suspect the reverse. As long as institutions are permitted to “address” systemic cultural attitudes and issues by making scapegoats of individuals, the underlying attitudes will never change. Behaviors might change, in public, but it won’t actually support REAL change, the kind that is needed.
We need change. We need cooperation and collaboration in changing from an assumption of “non-compliance” to discovering and addressing the barriers to healthcare solutions and treatments for each person.
Rare Disease Day: http://www.rarediseaseday.org/
– Rare Disease Day Flickr Stream: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rarediseaseday/
– Rare Disease Day US: http://rarediseaseday.us/
– Rare Disease Day Virtual Swag: http://www.rarediseaseday.org/article/get-involved-download-our-communication-materials
NIH: Rare Disease Day: http://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/news-and-events/pages/28/rare-disease-day
Global Genes: Rare Disease Day: http://globalgenes.org/world-rare-disease-day/
– Global Genes: RDD Virtual Swag: http://globalgenes.org/wear-that-you-care/
– Global Genes: Genes and Jeans (Awareness Ribbon): http://globalgenes.org/blue-denim-genes-ribbon/