Western culture is very reliant on individuals’ trust in institutions, particularly when it comes to hospitals. We are so used to thinking of doctors as infallible, that each time evidence to the contrary is revealed, reactions can get extreme in the public opinion. This is because of a general policy within medical institutions to project an image of complete control and utmost professionalism, even when slip-ups happen. After all, reputation is everything in this field.
On the other hand, as pointed out by a recent study conducted at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, this attitude can have severe negative effects on patients who suffer misdiagnoses. The case exemplified is that of Allison Kooijman, who went through grueling surgery to remove 30 lymph nodes from her neck, in an effort to control and contain thyroid cancer. During the process, a spinal nerve was injured, preventing her from returning to her job as a nurse. She now has a scar across her neck, from ear to ear.
It turns out that most of this was unnecessary, as most of the lymph nodes removed were healthy, and her cancer was less aggressive than initially estimated. Doctors were apologetic, but the hospital as an institution wasn’t very transparent when it comes to the internal investigation. This attitude, along with the identity-shaking loss of her career, sent Allison into the throes of depression.Eventually, the hospital issued an official apology, and now Allison is an advocate for patient rights and hospital transparency.
The study conducted by the researchers in Regina is meant to identify exactly why these kinds of situations occur, how often, and what can be done to stop this pervasive problem. According to private interviews conducted with medical professionals, this problem is very common, and it will take a lot of restructuring, both for internal politics, and in terms of educating the public about how science and hospitals work, in order to mitigate and minimize the damage and the occurrences of “institutional betrayal”. But the first step has already been taken – acknowledging the existence of the phenomenon makes it a problem that can now be addressed.