FAILING TO LEARN
Our country faces a huge number of unsolved problems and controversies. To list just a few of the items that await action in Congress this session: gun control, drones, cabinet appointments, a fairer tax code, the national economic meltdown which has resulted in four years of uncertainty and stress, the increased expense of healthcare, insurance, and general living expenses when most seniors have declining incomes, the loss of promised pensions hastened by Wall Street’s shenanigans of 2007/08.
“Action” is not a frequently heard word in D.C. at this time. Gridlock is.
And at this particular moment, we await confirmation of former senator Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, and John Brennan as head of the CIA. We are still at war in Afghanistan. We are in the midst of dodging and darting away from a Congressional Act called the sequestor which automatically will reduce spending in government departments across the board and which, according to many, may throw the country back into recession with job losses, curtailment of services, and industrial disarray.
And to top everything off, we have what may be a gigantic blizzard bearing down on the East Coast.
It would appear to some of us that our learning curve has come to a halt during the past dozen years. Mistakes are made, rarely corrected, and almost never examined for what they may tell us about the future. Politicians know what they believe and what they think. What they don’t know is how to get anything beneficial done for the country at large.
O.K., we think that’s enough depression for any day.
And yet, we want today to talk about learning from others who have made the same mistakes we are currently making and apparently learning from them, even correcting some of them.
For decades in this country we have heard about the wizardry and effectiveness of the National Health Services in Great Britain. We’ve been told how efficient it is, how English citizens are guaranteed care and coverage, how sensible a one-payer health plan such as theirs is, far preferable to what we have here, which is a private system, sometimes run for profit, sometimes not.
To be honest, we have also heard tales of months’ long waits for treatment, not to mention even examinations.
This week we read in a respectable newspaper about a scandal at a hospital smack in the middle of England, where the drive for profit has decimated patient care and brought about the premature deaths of many patients who were ignored, misdiagnosed, mistreated. Also who were not fed properly, dosed properly, cleansed regularly, and often left to die unattended for what were the flimsiest of reasons.
The name of this institution is Stafford Hospital, and a new report proposes that between 2005 and 2009 hundreds of patients there died needlessly.
The scandal erupted when in 2007 the British National Health Commission became concerned about the unusually high mortality rates at this hospital.
To read, or even hear, about what went wrong brought us to shouts of frustration and rage, insofar as it is easy enough to imagine ourselves in an institution like this where the profit motive reigned.
According to the Stafford report, patients were left unbathed, lying in their own wastes; patients were so thirsty they drank water from flower vases; patients were denied medications, pain relief and food by callous and overworked staff members; patients contracted infections due to filthy conditions; and patients were sent home to die after being given the wrong diagnoses.
The leader of the government inquiry said that these patients “were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate interests and cost control ahead of patient safety.”
“There was a lack of care,” he continued, “compassion, humanity and leadership. The most basic standards of care were not observed, and fundamental rights to dignity were not respected.”
Further, in its efforts to balance its books and save 16 million dollars, the hospital laid off too many people and focused relentlessly on external objectives rather than patient care.
It is true that many of the doctors and staff involved in this mistreatment have since been removed from their posts. But in a typical “failing upward” move, the head of the hospital during those years is now chief executive of the National Health Service in England.
To bring home to us all how severe the crisis was at Stafford Hospital, a 64 year old man, George Dalziel, died after a cancer operation there. Though the operation was successful, Mr. Dalziel went for days without pain medication after his epidural feed was dislodged and he was left in his own waste, losing nearly sixty pounds of weight before dying in the hospital. “His bones,” said his wife, “were sticking out of his back.”
What, you may ask, is the point of these horror stories?
To begin with, for-profit hospitals have long histories of rewarding their administrators and leading technicians with out-sized salaries. This leaves nurses, labs, therapists at the bottom of the pay ladder and people in that position either have the gumption to get up and go, or are unhappily and bitterly trapped in their jobs.
Mortality rates at for-profit hospitals are higher than in non-profit ones for the same reason. After care, following surgery, for example, is shorted by not having adequate and caring nurses, therapists, dieticians, even cleaning staffs insofar as what they should be earning is being pushed up the hierarchy to executive suites.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, for-profit hospitals often run thousands of dollars worth of unnecessary tests on their patients to maximize the doctor’s or the hospital’s billing.
We like to imagine that care in this country is better than that we’ve just outlined in Great Britain. But in many cases it isn’t. When profits become the driving force behind healing, healing suffers.
Just as in this country, our own money managers are rewarded inordinately for maximizing returns on trades and schemes, ignoring the needs and desires of their clients. And here, too, failing upwards is a common experience.
It isn’t enough any longer to claim superiority in any field when, in our 24/7 news cycle, we can learn what happened in other climes and countries and still manage to ignore their relevance to our life here.
The current financial rage for austerity, not only in government spending but on Wall Street, in hospitals, in industry and education,
invariably puts the accent on cutting bottom lines in favor of increasing profits for share-holders, or doctors, or university administrators.
What we’d like to know is when did America, the land of enterprise and honesty, become just another sinkhole for mismanagement, fraud, and wrong-doing?
And what are we learning from other lands, other peoples, about pulling ourselves back from the brink of financial, physical, and emotional ruin?