Editorial: Balancing the harrowing accounts

Last updated 05:00 24/02/2014

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OPINION: Our public opinion column is meant for debate rather than as a public noticeboard.

Still, though, we have long bent the rules to allow a tolerance for letters that essentially express gratitude for care and treatment given by local hospitals. These are sometimes, though not always, from people who were admitted in newsworthy circumstances.

These letters have been welcome in part because they do seem to be well read. Same goes for news stories - who doesn't like tales about hospitals' lifesaving, or life-transforming, successes?

We all know why that is. Good old empathy, for one thing, but also the vulnerability of anyone needing hospital treatment is considerable and since sooner or later most of us will be, we're up for encouragement and reassurance.

And it's a balance of those other stories. The distressing ones. When something occasionally goes wrong and the news media find out, public interest is acute, the attention given is widespread, and the stories can evoke an almost visceral response.

A shudder-inducing case in point emerges from Wairau Hospital in Blenheim where a man who had been pumped full of morphine was permitted to drive home in such a state that he passed out roughly 10 minutes from the hospital and suffered a head injury as a result.

This surely was a terrible call. Much as Kerry Anthony, 62, had wanted to leave, there's scant justification for anyone to argue that this came down to his personal responsibility.

For one thing - and admittedly this is a layman view - we don't tend to make our best decisions under the influence of morphine.

More specifically, his wife Jackie says there was no insistence he stay overnight, nor offer to get a cab for him or put him in an ambulance. The option of free accommodation made available by members of a "Safe Haven" residents' group wasn't put to him either.

A couple of other recent examples have highlighted failings in an area of deep public concern about medical procedures - sedatives or anaesthetics not doing their job.

At Wellington Hospital a man given a routine amount of local anaesthetic while his pacemaker was being replaced felt the knife's incision acutely.

It's kind of understood that more than a few people under surgical or dental procedures for which they aren't rendered unconscious can complain of pain and be reassured that all they are feeling is pressure.

But Merv Archer, 79, gave a pretty convincing account of enduring an awful, distressing time until more medication was given.

His report prompted Erlene Taylor to go public with a harrowing account of a colonoscopy at Taranaki Base Hospital. Though this procedure can certainly be uncomfortable, the experience was so awful that the memory tormented her afterwards.

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If it feels like such stories are becoming more commonplace, remember that although each of these three was a "whistleblower" case, the public health services, to their credit, are themselves providing better public formalised breakdowns of "sentinel" events.

Through this upgraded reporting process we're routinely learning more about what goes wrong than we used to be.

That's not a bad thing. The community is entitled to be involved in the quest for improvement.

But the bad news isn't just serious, it's oftentimes especially vivid, and much as we need to face the harrowing accounts squarely for the lessons they carry, it does us no harm to try to keep a proportional sense of how often the news is good.

- The Southland Times

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