AS IN THE CASE of patients, a similar lack of consideration - for a patient's family, in this incident - was evident in a recent article by staff writer Lynn Darling about how a local hospital's procedures managed to confuse, shock and hurt the mother of a 17-year-old victim of a fatal shooting.The article enumerated a series of events surrounding the young man's death at Fairfax Hospital. First, there was a letter sent to the victim's mother, Lillian Williamson, expressing the hospital's sympathy about the death of her "daughter." Next came another form letter from the hospital asking the mother to make arrangements within 72 hours to replace 15 units of blood used for her son. Then tere was the bill of 4 1/2 hours of treatment - for a total of $5,107.67.
Now regardless of the hospital's explanations of all this, which we'll get to, this treatment is more than a bereaved parent should have to endure. And when you add a number of other misunderstandings between the mother, whose native language is French, and various people at the hospital, it's easy to understand why Mrs. Williams is distraught. The hospital's handling of the case showed an insensitivty that was bound to produce all sorts of suspicions about the institution.
So what about that bill? Hospital officials explain that the statement covered heroic measures performed by a team of seven physicians, two open-heart technicians, a group of registered nurses and other support-staff people who were called in for a serious emergency. In addition to operating-room charges, the bill included 15 charges for whole blood at $25 a unit and 15 other charges for blood processing at $22 apiece. Other charges were described in terms that most nonmedical people wouldn't readily understand - which is a source of difficulty in all too many hospitals today.
We did some checking around medical circles about those charges and, though no one found them at all on the low side, neiter did anyone find them way out of line with today's generally horrendous level of charges for such services - especially taking into account overtime fees of specialists and the large amount of blood and blood processing involved. Charges by hospitals often are based on 24-hour periods rather than fractions thereof.
But the outlandish economics of medicine comes as an even greater shock when reflected so bluntly and incomprehensibly by a billing department that may be too accustomed to dealing with insurance-claim computers as distinct from distressed human beings. Moreover, in this instance, suspicions of inflated charges were further agitated when Mrs. Williamson inquired about the bill and the hospital promptly dropped charges for one operating room and a blood-bank product; and when, in response to an inquiry by a lawyer for Mrs. Williamson, th hospital apologized for the "daughter" reference (the first name on the records was "Chris") and reduced the bill to $4,055.67. The hospital maintains, however, that the second reduction was made as a gesture of sympathy, not because the bill had been too high in the first place.
It's important to note here that, to our knowledge, there has been no question about the quality of medical care that was administered. Still, this saga points up the troubling consequences of a hospital's failure to communicate with the people it serves. In these cases, emotions - like the bills - tend to run high. Even the slightest bureaucratic insensitivity can all too easily compound the anguish of those most closely concerned - and in the process, shatter public confidence.