We often complain about the poor communication and coordination in healthcare. We acknowledge the impact this can have on our patients. However, we rarely consider the consequences of poor coordination and communication for the grieving family after the patient has died.

Consider the case of Mary and Leo. Leo died in early June, in the hospital. Yet a month later, Mary is still getting messages on Leo’s phone from people who should have known not to call a grieving widow.

  • calls from nurses who coordinated Lou’s care
  • calls from the pharmacy about medication refills he’d missed
  • calls from doctor’s offices wondering when he will reschedule the appointments he’s missed.

It’s hard enough for Mary to get up the courage to listen to his voicemail messages, and she doesn’t feel like she can turn his phone off yet. So it keeps vibrating, and the number of messages keeps growing, nagging at her, as it lays nearby. She worries that in avoiding his messages, she’s missing something important, something that needs her attention.

Eventually, she gathers the courage to get into his phone, and begins listening to his voice mail messages.

  • “Hello Mr. Roberts, this is Becky, the RN case coordinator from your insurance company,”
  • “Hi Lou, it’s Bob from your pharmacy. We haven’t filled your prescription lately.”
  • “This is a call for Lou Roberts. I’m calling to reschedule the doctor’s appointment you missed two weeks ago.”

Most maddening are messages left every 5 days from the hospital billing office, where Lou died from complications of a surgery. “It’s their fault Lou is dead, so they had better NOT be calling about a bill!”

We have access to almost every kind of information at a moment’s notice. Electronic medical records seem to be universal, so why isn’t a person’s death immediately communicated to every person and organization caring for him, so that this kind of unacceptable information error does not happen?

I know that we have a complex healthcare system, with many different, often competing organizations involved in a person’s care. And I understand that our electronic medical records don’t talk to each other seamlessly yet.

But these are excuses.

We CAN and MUST do better.

Because next time, it might be YOUR loved one, and YOUR grief.

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