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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cuts hammering journalists



The headline warns "Cuts hammering elderly." Oddly, the online picture accompanying the story shows a happy senior being patiently spoon-fed by a caring health care worker.

The image is jarringly inappropriate and, no surprise, it is phony. It is a staged, stock photo image — stock photos are cheap but they are not journalism. I'd say cuts are hammering journalists, too.

Recently I briefly traded tweets with a local reporter who was offended when I called the balance in one of his stories "faux."

I not only stand by my previous comments but I'd like to expand upon them. The media in general, it is not just the local paper, all too often seem to believe that a story is not complete until it is balanced. They believe this until the cost of balance, either in time or money, is deemed too high.

Which brings us to today's article. My guess is the journalist was instructed to write a story on the report "Pushed Out of Hospital, Abandoned at Home" released by the Ontario Association of Speech-language Pathologists and Audiologists (OSLA) and the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU).

Before continuing, I want to make one thing clear: I am not claiming the report is error-filled. I am simply saying that a story as inflammatory as this one demands context, demands balance. How does what is happening in Ontario compare to what is taking place outside the province? Are these local problems or are they endemic in the health care approach embraced in a multitude of places?

For instance, the report by the unionized hospital workers and some therapists tells us "one in six patients has an unplanned readmission within 30 days." My response is to ask, "How does this compare to the readmission rate for seniors in other localities?"

A little searching discovers a report, The Revolving Door, on readmissions in the United States. This American report tells us:

The U.S. health care system suffers from a chronic malady — the revolving door syndrome at its hospitals. It is so bad that the federal government says one in five elderly patients is back in the hospital within 30 days of leaving.

Where this all gets interesting is newspaper report places the blame on underfunding. The answer from the union et al. is simple: Throw money at the problem. But the U.S. report puts the blame on its badly fragmented health care system. According to the American report, if patients get the right care the first time many return trips are prevented. Done properly, this costs less money, much less money, not more.

According to The Revolving Door report out of the U.S.:

The [U.S.] federal government has pegged the cost of readmissions for Medicare patients alone at $26 billion annually, and says more than $17 billion of it pays for return trips that need not happen if patients get the right care. This is one reason the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has identified avoidable readmissions as one of the leading problems facing the U.S. health care system and now penalizes hospitals with high rates of readmissions for their heart failure, heart attack, and pneumonia patients.

As a senior, in what I hope is just the early stages of congestive heart failure, I read the news report with great personal interest but I was left with more questions than answers. I know the reporter who wrote The Free Press piece and I am sure that that reporter was also left with lots of unanswered questions. Sadly, neither the reporter's questions nor mine will be answered. I blame cutbacks, newsroom cutbacks.

Take the congestive heart failure example. I keep returning to CHF because the news story told of a patient with CHF who was sent home after being taken to ER. As there isn't enough information in the newspaper concerning this incident, I read the report itself.

It seems the gentleman in question was 89 at the time he was admitted to the ER suffering from pulmonary edema. The doctor in ER immediately gave the gentleman Ventolin. This is widely accepted as a good first response. The ER doctor then wanted to send the gentleman home but his daughter fought this decision.

In the end she was successful at having her dad admitted to the ICU and given morphine. Morphine is a traditional drug for dealing with pulmonary edema but is falling our of favour. According to University Hospital, Cleveland, morphine is no longer indicated to treat pulmonary edema.

The daughter was happy with the morphine but upset about the Ventolin. I don't believe the daughter is a doctor. I'm not sure how much weight to give to either the daughter's praise or to her criticism of her father's care.

Survival times for those 80 years or older are often measured in months rather than years. The gentleman in question lived to be 94. Clearly, something was being done right for this senior. Cuts did not seem to be hammering his man, at least not until he hit 94. The fellow died after undergoing an gastroscopy during which the doctor apparently perforated his esophagus. He died from an actual medical cut.

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