Posts Tagged Anna Brown

More on When Labelling Patients Causes Patients to Die

In the comments WhiteCoat (of WhiteCoat’s Call Room fame) strenuously objects to my take on the Anna Brown case:

Wow.

Someone on my blog suggested that I check out this post after I just posted about this story yesterday.

To all of you who think “something more should have been done,” what should that “something” have been? She had multiple tests and exams performed for the same complaint – including sonograms which showed no blood clots the day before she died. She was having the same pain in her legs since she was hospitalized the week before. Gold standard test for DVTs is ultrasound. Do we repeat the ultrasound every day? Every hour? What other testing was “necessary”?

TorontoEmerg – think of all the patients you see with back pain requesting narcotic pain medications. Do you order serial MRIs on them to rule out the possibility of cauda equina? Or tumor? If so, what is the medical basis for the testing? If not, why? I’m assuming you don’t. When you miss the one patient who has a tumor and becomes paralyzed, you’ll be harangued because “obviously” the patient had something wrong and you neglected to address it. Yet once you tell the patients that they won’t be receiving any narcotic pain medications, many of the patients in severe pain stand up, curse at you, and storm out of the emergency department.

You say that Ms. Brown was “unable to walk.” The article showed that a nurse saw her standing the same day that she couldn’t walk. How many patients do you see who come to the emergency department and can’t get out of their car when they arrive? That’s a “red flag” that something is wrong. Do you order a million dollar workup on all of them? How many patients do you see who have had dozens of normal CT scans for their chronic abdominal pain? Is that proper medical care? I could go on and on, but you get the point.

The problem is that your post suffers from horrible hindsight bias. You knew the outcome and now you’re bashing the people who treated Ms. Brown because they didn’t have the ability to look into the future to see what would happen.

Yes, the outcome was horrible. Yes, there were miscues and miscommunication. I’m sure that Ms. Brown was “labeled” as someone trying to game the system. Society “labels” every aspect of our lives every day. President Obama is “liberal.” Ron Paul is “crazy.” Pit bulls are “dangerous.” Doctors are “rich.” Baby pandas are “cute.” Doing so doesn’t make us bad, it makes us human. Someone who was articulate and polite to the providers and to the police may have been treated differently. One of my readers said this was the “perfect storm” of events leading up to Ms. Brown’s death.

To say that Ms. Brown didn’t receive proper care or that her complaints were ignored is just wrong. I’m betting if you ordered all the testing you think Ms. Brown should have received on all of the patients who walked through the doors at your emergency department, *you’d* be the one being ridiculed.

I appreciate WhiteCoat taking the time to post such a lengthy reply. He fully explicates many of his points on his blog. I won’t editorialize much here, because I think his perspective is important to how we discuss cases like Anna Brown. I don’t share his point of view for a number of reasons, but I do agree with him that labelling people makes us human. The trouble starts, for me at least,  when we allow our interior — and often unrealized — biases to influence our care.

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When Labelling Patients Causes Patients to Die

I found this story how a homeless woman died very disturbing:

Anna Brown wasn’t leaving the emergency room quietly.

She yelled from a wheelchair at St. Mary’s Health Center security personnel and Richmond Heights police officers that her legs hurt so badly she couldn’t stand.

She had already been to two other hospitals that week in September, complaining of leg pain after spraining her ankle.

This time, she refused to leave.

A police officer arrested Brown for trespassing. He wheeled her out in handcuffs after a doctor said she was healthy enough to be locked up.

The throwaway, disposible patient

She told officers she couldn’t get out of the police car, so they dragged her by her arms into the station. They left her lying on the concrete floor of a jail cell, moaning and struggling to breathe. Just 15 minutes later, a jail worker found her cold to the touch.

Officers suspected Brown was using drugs. Autopsy results showed she had no drugs in her system.

Six months later, family members still wonder how Brown’s sprained ankle led to her death in police custody, and whether anyone — including themselves — is to blame.

There seems to be no simple answer.

Actually there is a very simple answer. At some point in her care, a nurse or physician decided Anna Brown deserved to die. I don’t mean literally a health care professional wrote Anna Brown’s chart, “This patient deserves to die.” But someone decided — a nurse, a physician, or maybe it was a collective, Emergency Department judgment —  that because Anna Brown was homeless, because she was black, because she was poor, because she had made multiple visits, because she was still in pain, because she advocated for herself by making a fuss, because she possibly had (undiagnosed) mental health issues, she was not entitled to proper care.

She was labelled. She was drug-seeking. She was crazy. She was a frequent flyer. And that killed her as surely as if a nurse had bolused potassium chloride.

I will tell you why I think this is true.  Because Anna Brown had made repeated visits, and no one took her seriously. Because she told staff about her increasing pain, and no one believed her. Because she was unable to walk, and no one thought to ask why. All of these are enormous waving red flags for any emergency department health care professional, and neither physician nor nurse did anything about them. That’s the thing about labels: they contain their own little subjective judgements about patient care, and obscure the obvious.

If Anna Brown had been a middle-class white woman with a nice home, a job and a car, I am willing to bet — no, I know the outcome would have been different — or at least, she would not have died, gasping for air, from a pulmonary embolism on a cold jailhouse floor. There certainly would not have been any of this Kafkaesque horror of being in obvious distress with a deep vein thrombosis, about to throw a clot, and being utterly unable to get help at the very place where you might expect it.

I will let the public in on a little secret. We all do it. Each and every one of us. I don’t exclude myself. We all label patients. It is deeply embedded in the culture of health care to the point where it is an accepted practice. We all call patients drug seeking and crazy and frequent flyers and failures-to-die and failures-to-cope. We laugh at them. Hell, there are whole blogs and books devoted to the art of ridiculing patients we have already labelled. (Though when you think about it, there is nothing quite as charming as making fun of  human beings who are powerless, is there?) Has any one ever thought labelling patients might cloud and impair clinical judgment? Or that it dehumanizes patients and is just plain wrong?

There is also this from another blogger who writes:

But the way Brown died was not the result of a few bad choices. It was the result of a myriad of institutional violences: white supremacy, the broken health care system, police brutality and the prison industrial complex, the racism and classism of the child welfare system, ableism and its intersection with racism, dehumanization and criminalization of (suspected) drug users, and the lack of housing as a human right, among others. Anna Brown did not die with the dignity we afford to human beings, but with the contempt we reserve for garbage. And a woman’s humanity is not just forgotten and cast aside with no systemic reason.

[But go read it all.]

Don’t think I have much to add.

[Via.]

[UPDATE: A long time reader suggests instead of the word label, I should use “profile,” as in “racially profiling.” Once upon a time I might have thought the word unnecessarily inflammatory — but now I am not so sure.]

[UPDATE II: Small corrections to syntax. Hobbit not cooperating.]

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