07 July, 2013

The problem with hospitals: a very personal experience

My elderly mother recently had a spell in hospital. It was a pretty standard story for someone who is almost eighty--she fell while doing some cleaning at home, couldn't get up again and had to call 999. She was diagnosed with a fractured hip and had to have an operation to mend the fracture, which necessitated her staying in hospital for a short period.

We are hearing a lot at the moment about the poor state that our hospitals are in--how A&E departments are near breaking point, how low standards of care can be. My experience of my mother's spell in hospital gave me a very personal perspective on this state of affairs.

I live a two-hour drive away from my mother and I am the only relative (my mother has no other children and she divorced years ago). This means that all responsibility in this kind of situation falls on me. I don't mind this at all, but it does mean that I need people to be understanding and, sometimes, flexible.

The visiting hours on my mother's ward were 2.30 until 4.30. I needed to visit my mother during the week (as soon as possible after she'd been admitted) so that I could see her and collect some things that she needed from her flat. I also needed to be back home in time to pick up my kids from school. So, visiting hours of 2.30 until 4.30 were no good to me at all. I explained all this over the phone to the staff nurse (Jan) and she said that she couldn't give me permission to visit outside visiting hours on my planned day because she wouldn't be there then. She advised that I ring the ward before I set off on the day that I planned to visit to check with the staff nurse on duty then that it would be alright for me to come.

I did exactly as I was told--rang the ward number before I left. The ward phone was answered by an answerphone telling me that the ward couldn't take routine patient enquiries between 7 and 11.30 am (!) but that if my call was an emergency, I could ring an alternative number.

I rang the alternative, emergency number...and rang and rang. I must have tried about six times before I left and then again several times en route. The phone was never picked up. And this was the EMERGENCY line!!

When I eventually arrived at the ward, I was met by rude and unhelpful staff. They implied that I was lying, saying there was no staff nurse with the name of Jan who worked on the ward, and denying that the phone was never answered. I did get to see my mother in the end, but only after a lot of arguing on my part. The whole experience left me feeling angry, frustrated and sad.

While I understand that hospitals are overstretched and that the primary role of staff must be to care for patients rather than to worry about relatives, I do expect that wards should be answering their emergency phone lines. I also expect to be treated with courtesy and respect by ward staff, even more so when I have exactly followed the instructions that I have been given by the nurse in charge. If ward staff fail to treat relatives--people who can fend for themselves--with courtesy and respect, then one seriously wonders about the attitude they adopt towards patients--the people for whom they are meant to be caring.

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