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Four Lessons to Survive Healthcare

I had lunch today with my seventh grade English teacher – my favorite teacher of all time – an inspiration to me and the thousands of students he taught over the course of his 38-year career.  For the sake of anonymity, I call him “Mr. Lang” (not his real name).

During the course of our lunch, Mr. Lang happened to share with me that he almost died a few years back.  I had no idea.  But the story he told me is all too common in our healthcare system (and one that I experienced firsthand with my late wife, Stacey).

In Mr. Lang’s case, it all started with some non-destript symptoms on a Saturday morning that caused his wife to “drag him” to the ER in Baltimore to be seen.  A few misdiagnoses later, some administrative foul-ups in the hospital, lack of communication between healthcare providers and a temperature over 103 degrees…and, by Sunday night, Mr. Lang was, quite literally, on his deathbed.

Had it not been for his wife’s insistence that his personal physician be brought into the loop and the persistent advocacy of his physician’s wife (of all people), there would have been no lunch today with Mr. Lang…  Once his personal physician got him to a specialist he preferred, that new doctor diagnosed the problem as a rare and life-threatening form of hernia, Mr. Lang was rushed into surgery and, thank God, his life was saved.  The next morning, the surgeon told Mr. Lang that had they waited even a few more hours, he likely would not have survived.

So what are the lessons to be learned from Mr. Lang’s story?  Well, there are several:

  1. Pay Attention When You Enter the Healthcare System – Our healthcare system has the most compassionate, educated and skilled clinicians in the world.  However, the system they work within can be tragically flawed.  Information doesn’t get from one doctor to another when needed, the wrong tests are run, protocols aren’t followed and mistakes are made with frightening regularity.  So be on alert.  Pay attention and, if possible, have someone help you.
  2. Have an Advocate – Mr. Lang had three:  His wife, his personal physician and his physician’s wife.  While Mr. Lang was largely incapacitated and believed that everyone on his care team “knew what they were doing”, these people advocated for him and improved the quality of care he received.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Lang would not have survived this event had it not been for his three advocates.
  3. Be Proactive – When symptoms arise is not the time to be passive.  Aggressively pursue treatment.  I know, it’s a hassle going to the ER or Urgent Care Center – no one wants to do it but it could be a matter of life or death.  So ask questions, be persistent, get the information you need and make sure everyone involved in your care is “on the same page”.
  4. All MDs are Not the Same – The old joke goes, “What do you call the person who graduated last in their Med School class?”  The answer, of course, is “Doctor”.  It’s a joke, but the ramifications are very serious.  There are great doctors and their are not-so-great ones.  And the only people who really know who’s which, are other healthcare providers – but most won’t talk about it (at least not “on the record”).  Systems are getting better at measuring provider outcomes empirically (i.e. HealthGrades, CareChex, etc.) but until these are commonplace, you have to find great healthcare providers now – before you find yourself in Mr. Lang’s situation.
Several years ago, Time magazine featured an article on how physicians’ respond when they or their family members went into the hospital. The shocking revelation was that these physicians were terrified of being inpatient.  They understood the frequency of mistakes made in the hospital and they couldn’t get out fast enough.

So take a clue from those who know and you’ll dramatically improve your odds of surviving healthcare.

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