I’m writing this in my hotel room in the Old Town of Prague.
In this ancient city of a hundred spires I’m surrounded by wonder and beauty, but in a place so different from home, I’m reminded that I’m a traveller in a land that is strange to me. Along with the adventure of new sights, sounds and experiences, comes a subtle discomfort with the unfamiliar and the potential for danger.
It is not unlike the experiences of my own patients, friends and family who have found them selves in another strange place – the hospital.
A big difference between travelling to another country and finding yourself in a hospital is the surprise and misadventure that brings you to the latter. It’s like being a refugee fleeing from disaster rather than a vacationer to the happiest place on earth.
As a patient, you might feel like Dorothy being swept to the Land of Oz, and I don’t mean Australia.
You might end up in the hospital for a procedure such as an operation, which many times can be planned and expected. In this case, it’s almost like a pre-booked holiday (perhaps with a very long wait) and the length of your stay is usually predictable.
Most patients, however, are unexpectedly admitted to the hospital in response to an accident (e.g. a fall with a fractured hip) or an illness (e.g. infection, stroke, heart attack or symptoms of an as yet undiagnosed condition).
The goal for most patients admitted to the hospital of course is health – having undergone a successful operation, illuminating investigations or therapies that allow you to leave the hospital not only stable but healthy – or at least healthier than when you came in.
The not-so-secret secret is that hospitals can be dangerous places, and we’ve all heard stories of patients getting sicker due to medical misadventure, mistakes that weren’t picked up, unnecessary delays and hospital-acquired infections.
This is the reality when you gather many sick people in a large institution where every patient comes in contact with numerous health care workers. Fortunately, the vast majority of patients do well in the hospital and not only survive but thrive.
Since Hippocrates, the first rule of medicine has been to do no harm. Hospitals and health authorities are actively doing their best to reduce patient risks. Safety has been part of the new culture of health care.
Though patients are not to blame when things go wrong in the hospital, I’ll offer in my next column some key tips in being a more assertive patient or advocate for a friend or family member. In fact, I could write a whole book – or like travel writer, Rick Steves, a whole series of books on hospitals around the world; maybe the Lonely Patient’s Guides to Surviving Your Medical Adventures.