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Sorry Works! Blog

Making Disclosure A Reality For Healthcare Organizations 

Hospital Continues to Send Mail to Grieving Family - Then Apologizes!

wadeOn several occasions Sorry Works! has shared the story of Wade and Jennifer who lost their daughter to medical errors at Children's Hospital Oakland (CHO) - now named UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland after a recent merger. We even shared the Westhoff's experience in the new Sorry Works! Tool Kit Book. There are many angles to this tragic story, but one facet is painfully simple and incredibly galling: This hospital continued to send mail to the Westhoff family! Despite in-person pleas from the family, media coverage, and a mutual understanding when the case was settled, the family continued to be assaulted at the mail box. The latest piece hit recently....it was one of those "read about our latest miracle and send money!" solicitations that hospitals routinely use. Wade said it was another punch in the gut. Part of Wade would like to re-write the fundraising pitch: "Read about how our daughter died at this hospital due to medical errors and the hospital treated us horribly afterwards...including repeatedly sending mail to us. Don't send money to this hospital!"

Wade also confided to me that he simply thought about throwing the letter in the recycling bin and forgetting about it. His family will be moving shortly, so CHO's mail will come to a complete stop eventually due to the move. However, Wade feels a duty to his daughter and other families to share what is happening. Perhaps CHO will never change --- even after local media in the Bay area reported this problem - but perhaps other hospitals will learn from CHO's continued insensitivity.

On a chance, Wade wrote the attorney who represented the hospital during his daughter's lawsuit. Wade laid it out in an e-mail just like it is presented here...and the attorney let the hospital know! To their credit, the hospital contacted Wade, scheduled a conference call with Wade and several hospital executives, said they were "mortified," apologized several times, and promised to never let it happen again. The conference call was not without pitfalls...one CHO/UCSF executive who had a sick child said she "understood" Wade's feelings. Wade quickly rebutted: "So, did your child die due to preventable errors?" The hospital executive quickly retreated. The call ended with a CHO/UCSF executive confiding to Wade that his daughter's case identified several problems and shortcomings in the hospital, and they are working to improve in these areas. We can certainly hope. In looking back at the conference call, Wade and his family felt this was the first time that CHO/UCSF actually heard them and actually "got it" as far as the need to improve their communications program. For the first time since his daughter's death, Wade feels some optimism about the ability of CHO/UCSF to improve their care and communications efforts with families.

Earlier this year, I was conducting a Sorry Works! training for a large hospital system, and I shared the Westhoff's story as part of the seminar. When I finished describing the Westhoff's experience, the hospital's General Counsel raised her hand and I called on her, but instead of addressing me she turned instead to the hospital marketing chief and stated, "Don't let this happen at our hospital. We cannot do this to our patients and families." I shared this experience with Wade and it made him feel good...his family's story is already making a difference.

Moral of the story: Patients and families need communication from hospitals, practices, and clinicians post-event, but that communication must be empathetic and delivered in an intelligent fashion. Bills, marketing magazines, surveys, and fundraising solicitations are insensitive and cruel to any family, and make the hospital/practice look stupid and incompetent. Moreover, people should not have to move away to stop the assault at the mail box. With a few key strokes, good disclosure hospitals can suspend all mail, including bills, marketing magazines, surveys, fundraising letters, etc, to families who have experienced adverse medical events. All communication attempts need to go through the disclosure team and clinicians involved in the event - period.

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