Every 9 or 10 days I run out. Hand sanitizer is supposed to be provided by the hospital, so I go to get some more. For decades we have had evidence that clean hands by health providers saves lives, but most of the nurses and staff never clean their hands between patients. I must say this is probably partially due to the painful waste of time that acquisition of necessary cleaners can be. I stick my head in the pharmacy window, explaining that I need some more. “It is finished”, is the response. At first, I assume the obvious truth that such a statement means that there isn’t anymore. But during those extra few delayed moments, she adds a statement indicating that maybe there is more, but it isn’t in the pharmacy. So I ask, “where would it be?” The answer is “in the store”. The store is only 2 small cement buildings away, maybe 50 steps needed to get there. I can clearly see it from the window which I am looking in and from which she is looking out. However, in spite of the fact that multiple employees have come for a refill, no one has found it important to go see if there’s any in that building. So, I turn and head for it. There are three doors, I step in the only open one. “Is there any hand cleaner? The pharmacy says they are out.” “You’ll have to check next door”, is the response. I move toward the next door, but it is closed. I return to the other man stating that the door is closed, asking if I should go ahead in. He never looks toward me or acknowledges me, though he is aware that I am there and speaking to him. So, I leave and go back to the second door, push it open. I look over each of the shelves, seeing many items, but no hand cleaner. I return to the man, asking more loudly and in such a way to encourage a response, “do you know where it would be, I am not seeing it”. He finally looks at me and eases up from his seated position. He walks to the second door. Less than a second of glance inside the door brings a response, “I am sure, it must be finished”. I respond, “are you sure, or are you guessing?” He again says the same statement “I am sure, it must be finished”, never looking within the room again, zero effort to try to find the item that I am seeking. I again respond, “Are you sure, or are you guessing?” Finally he realizes that I am not leaving until some effort is made to actually assess if the hand gel is there or not. He yells, in an obviously bothered tone, to a man walking on the sidewalk, “Is the hand gel finished?” The reply is that there is plenty. Within a few seconds, the new face is walking over carrying a whole box full of the gel. I take a whole large bottle, hoping to avoid this same scenario for at least a month. My tongue gently, yet untamed for the moment again speaks as I turn to the first man, “So, are you sure, or just guessing?”
It’s a foolish example intentionally. There are other examples within every area which are not so foolish and have direct patient effects. Stat labs still unresulted after 12 hours, no staff has checked on them but they are “not back”. Necessary medications were not given, arguments blame nursing staff, no pharmacy, no nursing staff again. None of it is charted, so who could know? Medical records “have not been found”, but it turns out they were never looked for. The patient was admitted, but no one looked at her all night, so they never noticed the complication or notified a doctor. No area that affects medical care is exempt. It is sort of depressing.
But I was riding down the road the other day and saw something interesting. The previously battered road was being repaved. Now, the typical way for road repair is to have some dusty man in torn pants, and an oversized, dirty shirt filling in the hole with dirt or gravel. As the drivers pass by the area where he has obviously been working and sweating during that day, they may give him a coin as his pay. But, this particular road repair was a world apart from that. It was the developed world apart. A French company had been hired to repair a large section of road. The employees working were all Cameroonian. The sight was not anything like a normal process in Africa though. Traffic was stopped in an orderly manner, giving me a good time to watch. Dumptruck after dumptruck of gravel came and went in an orderly fashion. As they dumped the rocks, immediately they were leveled out by the workers on the ground. No one was standing around, there were no extra people. On the other side of the road, an orderly system for grading the land was occurring. The whole process was like watching the inside of a watch – all of the parts were working together to make the clock tick. I had never seen anything so systematic and successful in my travels in West Africa. I wondered, how did they make this work so well? The existing systems did not support such effort, response, or effect. But what had been brought in as the standard within this company was working. The workers wanted work. If they didn’t want to do it within the standard put forth, there were hundreds more standing behind them who would be glad to. Hmm.
It made me wonder. Health care is certainly different. It requires more training and skill than basic manual labor. Developing a good system could not just be “dropped in”. However, how can one make a system that actually is effective within this setting. Is there a way to change the present system? Each missionary doctor comes with that expectation, that some part of the system will be improved as we pour our lives into it. But every one of us would say that the change we have made is much less than we had hoped. I am not foolish enough to believe that there is a place on earth where all frustrations cease and all problems are solved. But I must continue to believe that there is a better way, a more supportive system, for such change. I long to learn more about such a method. I want to see, is there a way to pour out a life where more is left when we finish than just our sweat which has dried invisibly into the ground we have toiled? I believe that whatever work we do should be done well, and that in doing so is a part of how God is glorified through His people. That we should implement systems that are sustainable within our communities and areas of influence. And that the people we serve with should be trained and empowered to carry on after we are gone. But all of that takes a better system than I have seen. Practically I don’t know how to do it. Yet, there is something inside me, determined and stubborn, that refuses to settle for less. I don’t want to see my patients unnecessarily at risk for generation after generation. I want to see life-change, and system-change, and method-change. Ultimately I want the health care that I provide to glorify God both in the present, and long after I’m gone. And that requires some plan for better care of patients and communities.
On the other side of the world, in the land that I would proudly call my home, there is a whole different battle for health care. One of which, as a doctor, I admit that I still do not understand well. It is also true, that I do not have some magic answer that would straighten out the whole, messy system. My world is much simpler, the baseline needs are much greater, and the resources to meet those needs are much less. Of all of the problems that the US has, the developing world has piles more. And there are fewer people committed to solving them. One isn’t more important than the other – I want my family cared for well there, just as I want someone else’s family cared for well here. We all certainly need wisdom in these times. Better systems are needed all over the world. How do we keep the patient a priority, while building an effective system to serve them? It turns out I am not the only one who doesn’t know. A whole army of healthcare thinkers can’t figure it out. There is no easy, obvious answer. May God grant us wisdom as we attempt to care for the people around us. We certainly need it.