On the Suckiness of Health Care Reporting

Woke up this morning and saw this in my newsreader, the story of an elderly woman dying in a Quebec emergency department after (allegedly) waiting six hours to see a physician:

Last Tuesday, Therese de Repentigny’s daughter took her to the hospital after she began complaining of pain. De Repentigny, 78, was seen by a triage nurse and then told to wait.

De Repentigny’s daughter, Fernande Blais, says her mother got up from her hospital stretcher several times, asking to see a doctor. However, she was repeatedly told she would have to wait.

“No one came. The entire night was spent that way,” Blais told CTV Montreal.

Shortly before midnight, de Repentigny was scheduled for blood work and an ultrasound, but first she wanted to use the bathroom.

When she got up she grabbed the wall, telling her daughter she wasn’t feeling well before collapsing to the floor. Blais called for help, and eventually had to leave her mother’s side to find a doctor.

You get the impression from the story that this unfortunate woman was essentially left to rot by uncaring staff.* This may or may not be true: the hospital claims de Repentigny was actively receiving care.  In fact, we are confounded in making sense of this story, by the lack of information. We don’t know the details of her presenting complaint, whether her vital signs were stable when she arrived, what nursing and medical care she received, and so on. We don’t know if her syncope in the toilet was related to her initial complaint, or if she went into cardiac arrest for reasons completely unrelated to her visit: this happens more often than the public might suppose.

There are reasons for this paucity of information. Reporters don’t have the knowledge — or dare I say it, the interest or time — to pick out the nuances in a case like this, and there are more than a few. It’s a quick win for them to link this incident with the case of Brian Sinclair, though the circumstances between the two appear to be much different. Hospitals cannot give out confidential information about patients, and in essence, the only account we have is from family members distraught by a grievous loss.

The point is, like most health care horror stories in the media, we aren’t given enough information to make any definitive conclusions at all and yet we are left at the end of the story with larger cultural memes validated. Our expectations are confirmed. We all know the story of The Nasty Nurse and the particularly Canadian motif of Our Failing Health Care System, don’t we?


*On the other hand, Jesus wept, if the incident recounted at the end of CTV’s story is true.

[UPDATE: inserted links I inexplicably forgot to put in.]

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  1. #1 by Maha on Wednesday 17 November 2010 - 1605

    I think that in cases like this, records of treatment should be made public. I think we need to take the mystery out of the ER visit because it kind of sucks that we get accused of letting patients rot when we’re doing everything we can.

  2. #2 by Jenn Jilks on Wednesday 17 November 2010 - 1720

    Privacy Acts say we are entitled to our privacy, yet if a family member goes to the press, you’d think they’d waived their rights.

    We only hear the one side of the story, bleeding left-wing liberals. I think we overestimate the integrity of the press. If it bleeds…
    I know that triage has a set protocol. This is only right and fair. To understand what happens in a particular case, we’d need more info that is beyond the story, and column space. We’d need info about the bleeders who were in cardiac arrest. Which is private.

    Another rock and hard place! Good post.

  3. #3 by Gothamnurse on Thursday 18 November 2010 - 0839

    I’d love to know what her initial CTAS was, number of nurses was, etc. We have a requirement of at least hourly rounding on our patients. I hope there’s more to this story with regard to the patient ‘s change in status or vitals.

  4. #4 by Cartoon Character on Thursday 18 November 2010 - 1146

    I agree that the public never knows half of it – partly because of confidentiality laws and partly because when a lawsuit may be pending, it is a good idea not to make comments. Mostly, I would say that care given is great in most ERs in Canada….I know that I have had less than adequate experience in my local ER at times….but given other options….I still say that I prefer our system over others. More than 90% of Canadians, in a recent poll – have said the same.
    Anyway – good news never gets in the newsfeed. How interesting is it to report ” 100s of lives were saved today by ER nurses and MDs”??? – it just isn’t newsworthy.

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