When Robin McGee first found blood in her stool, she immediately sought medical advice. Since she had close family members who had colorectal cancer, she knew an early diagnosis could significantly improve outcomes.
Unfortunately, the first doctor she consulted didn’t take her concern seriously, neither did the second nor the third general physician she saw.
When she was referred to a general surgeon, McGee believed she would finally have a colonoscopy, but that expectation was soon quashed.
“The general surgeon’s secretary triaged me using screening standards pasted to her desk, which resulted in an 18-month wait to even see the general surgeon,” she says, adding the guidelines didn’t recommend screening for people under 50 and McGee was in her mid-40s.
“The surgeon then made me wait an additional four months for the colonoscopy,” she says. “Despite having active symptoms, including worsening rectal bleeding, each of the three family physicians and the general surgeon belittled and scorned my presentation.”
In addition to dealing with a system that collectively dismissed her concerns, “each doctor assumed another doctor would assume responsibility,” believes McGee. The third doctor she saw, for example, received a positive result for a cancer-screening test, but failed to initiate the appropriate investigation.
If detected early, colorectal cancer is highly treatable, but the outlook is much different when therapy is delayed. Her late diagnosis caused McGee much suffering and significantly shortened her life expectancy.
Since then, McGee has been outspoken about preventable harm in the health-care system. She wrote a book called The Cancer Olympics and has lent her voice to the #ConquerSilence campaign spearheaded by the Canadian Patient Safety Institute (CPSI), a national organization dedicated to improving patient safety and quality of care.
“Most Canadians don’t realize that 28,000 patients die every year from preventable harm when receiving care, ” says Chris Power, the CPSI’s CEO. “This makes patient safety incidents the third leading cause of death in Canada, behind cancer and heart disease.”
Since not many of the stories reach a wider audience, this is “a silent epidemic,” she adds.
The silence around preventable harm also causes suffering for health-care professionals, says Abigail Hain, who has been a nurse for over 30 years. “These incidents, which are often caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding, are so rarely discussed after they happen. But it is important to learn from them and get past the silence and the shame.”
Everyone has a story, believes Power, who wants to encourage Canadians to speak up. “The silence exists between patients and providers, between colleagues in health-care facilities, between administrators in different regions, and between the public and policy-makers,” she says. “We want to teach Canadians that if something looks wrong, feels wrong or is wrong – we need to speak up, in the moment. By conquering silence, we can begin to work together to solve the health-care issues we face.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.