Media must inform to empower passive patients

  • Kim Johnson - 2 November 2012

If media coverage is anything to go by cases of HIV and TB misdiagnosis seem to be on the rise.

But articles that tackle this issue seem to be reluctant to step in where the healthcare system has failed by providing factual information that could empower readers and stamp out instances misdiagnosis.

The recent rash of stories lifting the lid on instances where people have been misdiagnosed with HIV and TB (see [insert links to prev. stories]) raise questions around patient empowerment, especially in the context of an over burdened and ailing public health care system.

Last Friday (26 October 2012) yet another case of misdiagnosis emerged through the media, this time in the Sowetan.

According to the paper, Karabo April of Soweto was misdiagnosed with TB meningitis (TB affecting the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spine). But a second opinion saw Karabo diagnosed and successfully treated for what really turned out to be migraines.

The Sowetan is upfront with its criticism of the doctor who incorrectly diagnosed Karabo, emphasising the fact that Karabo was hastily and incorrectly diagnosed, prescribed medication and sent on her way without being given much insight into the condition she had been diagnosed with or what her treatment involved.

Although the Sowetan identified the lack of communication of information as a huge problem in Karabo’s case, ironically the paper did nothing to remedy the situation by actively communicating information on TB meningitis, its symptoms, how it is diagnosed and how it is treated.

This needn’t have been the main focus of the piece, even a link to a website which has the relevant information would have sufficed.

Cases of misdiagnosis in our newspapers clearly raise the spectre of a doctor-patient relationship that is characterised by passivity on the side of the patient and absolute authority on the part of the doctor.

As consumers of health care services patients need to be informed and therefore empowered in order to better navigate the ins and outs of interactions with the health care system.

When the public knows what the symptoms of a condition are, what tests should be performed and what treatment is required they can identify sub-standard treatment and services and step up and ask the right questions.

Granted patients cannot be informed of all conditions at all times, but disseminating key information on HIV and TB is essential where prevalence is through the roof and health care service slip-ups happen frequently.

The news media could be the ideal vehicle for patient empowerment, using stories of misdiagnosis as opportunities to provide information that can shift members of the public from passive patient to keyed-up consumer.

Karabo’s story, like many others, represents a missed opportunity because the Sowetan did not step up to the plate to take up the slack left by the health care system.

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“ironically the paper did nothing to remedy the situation by actively communicating information on TB meningitis”