When Communication Breakdown Hurts Patients and Providers

I have spent much of my career helping create new software for the healthcare industry. There are plenty of inefficiencies in healthcare delivery, and technology can help address these by enabling better communication between physicians and administrators.

Providers are now receiving and sharing medical information of all kinds thanks to sophisticated software, and this has helped reduce waste and make better use of resources. But we have a long way to go, because the most important source of information in healthcare — the patient — is being left out far too often.

I learned this lesson through a real-life experience. Because a healthcare provider did not have the proper tools to communicate with a patient outside of the care setting, someone very close to me faced a life-or-death situation.

After it was over, what stuck in my mind the most was how easily this traumatic experience could have been avoided.

My wife’s story

Years ago, my wife needed to visit the hospital for an interventional radiology procedure to clear a clot in a vein in her shoulder. This was purported to be a routine radiology procedure, and it involved taking a certain drug to break apart the blood clot. This drug is known to elevate the risk of internal hemorrhage, a dangerous complication.

Doctors did not use a high enough dose of this drug in my wife’s case to warrant serious concern about hemorrhaging, and the radiology procedure was performed as a same-day procedure.

My wife was groggy from anesthesia when the nurse walked her through her discharge instructions, and when my wife handed me the written instructions she had been given, I noticed that they were blurred photocopies of a discharge plan that had been written for patients undergoing a different procedure. Our nurse had simply crossed a few parts out on this paper, and then written her own instructions, illegibly, on the same form.

My wife did have a complication after this procedure, and needed to be taken by ambulance back to the hospital, where she spent several unplanned days. Thankfully, she recovered.

The lesson learned

This experience made me angry (still does!). The information we received when we left the hospital should have clearly outlined the warning signs that would indicate my wife was experiencing a complication. Instead, there were scrawled words on a blurry form that was meant for someone else.

In this situation, there was no way to get further information from her care team, and there was no way for the team to get any updates from us. There was no communication that could have helped her avoid a dangerous complication and her resulting hospital stay.

We know that administrators and physicians can share information that helps their operations function more smoothly and with fewer mistakes.

But what about the patient? In every scenario in healthcare, the patient is the person who has the most at stake. Why is the patient the one with the least information?

Applying the lesson

My wife and I had to learn the hard way that there is a breakdown in the flow of information in our country’s healthcare system. It’s not to do with physicians communicating with one another, or with the government agencies that regulate them. It’s the communication between the physician and the patient.

When physicians and patients are face to face, they freely exchange information. But when a patient leaves the care setting to go home, the dialogue often ends there. If something goes wrong, the care team usually does not know about it until the patient presents again at the hospital.

This is not good enough. Not only do patients suffer more than they need to, but physicians face penalties if their patients are readmitted when that outcome could have been avoided. It has never been as important as it is now for physicians to listen to their patients, and to make sure their patients have the information they need to properly manage their health.

This is why I value my work with GetWell Loop.

Moving forward

With all the advanced technologies that have been built for the healthcare industry, it’s not acceptable that patients and their loved ones are still left stranded without the right information. It’s not acceptable that providers do not reach out regularly to their patients to solicit the kind of information that leads to better treatment. Pointing to resource constraints, tight budgets and other technology priorities is not an excuse to deny patients their basic right of information.  We can do much better than this.

Patients and their physicians should be sharing information every day. The technology exists now to make this happen at scale and with limited effort, and thankfully this will become the norm.

This is what we’re doing with GetWell Loop. We are facilitating this communication. We regularly see that daily information sharing between physicians and patients leads to better health outcomes. We are dramatically cutting readmission rates at hospitals, and we are boosting patient satisfaction because consumers now know that their voices are being heard.

What happened with my wife does not have to happen with the next patient. With a better flow of information enabled by GetWell Loop, it won’t happen.