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Even Maureen Dowd, Who Calls Out Presidents, Did Not Confront Doctors

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd

Taking off from recent news about new efforts to stem hospital infections, she describes an encounter with a young doctor who was wearing a tie while he attended to her brother, Michael, who had been hospitalized for pneumonia. Why, she asked, had Michael contracted four additional infections in the hospital?

“It could be anything,” he said. “It could be my tie spreading germs.”

I was dumbfounded. “Then why do you wear a tie?” I asked. He shrugged and left for rounds.

Michael died in that I.C.U. A couple years later, I read reports about how neckties and lab coats worn by doctors and clinical workers were suspected as carriers of deadly germs. Infections kill 100,000 patients in hospitals and other clinics in the U.S. every year.

Love her or hate her, Maureen Dowd is a towering and verbally fearless columnist who has called out president after president. Yet, she writes:

I saw infractions of the rules in the I.C.U. where Michael died, but I never called out anyone. I was too busy trying to ingratiate myself with the doctors, nurses and orderlies, irrationally hoping that they’d treat my brother better if they liked us.

Maureen asks Elizabeth Cohen of CNN, author of "The Empowered Patient," how best to confront health care providers, and Elizabeth says we have to get over "the 'waiter spitting in your soup scenario,' that the medical professionals will somehow avenge themselves, by giving less attention, if you insult them."

Easier said than done. But the stakes are so high. Long ago when you could smoke in hospitals, a friend of mine once picked up an emergency room ashtray — you know, the waist-high metal cylinder kind? — and bashed it against a wall when he felt his loved one was not receiving proper attention. I appreciate his passion, but you can't help a patient much from a jail cell.

Perhaps we need inspiration from examples. I wish Maureen had ended her column with an example of how she now actively questions doctors. Instead, she describes practicing assertive tactics on taxi drivers.

Readers, have you ever stood up to a health care provider on behalf of a loved one? Please share. Here's the voice of experience from a commenter on the Times column, the mother of a medically fragile child:

i also learned very quickly to question doctors — not in a nasty confrontational, in-your-face way, but firmly, with courtesy. in the end, it's the life of your loved one that you are protecting, if not your own. and i'd like to think that docs know full well that hospitals are havens of disease — and that it's part of their job to keep people safe. a simple, "oh, would you mind purelling again? we're really struggling with his condition today" is not something a doc can really so "no" to.

This program aired on April 13, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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