Tuesday, January 31, 2012

To Improve Quality of Health Services, We Must Build Trust

Below is my piece in the New Times published on 30 January 2012. You can click here to read the article on the New Times.

To Improve Quality of Health Services, We Must Build Trust
By Dr. Agnes Binagwaho

Three different but related forms of trust are required to undergird a strong health system. Patients must trust their care providers, providers must trust their patients, and providers must trust each other. Without these three interlocking relationships of trust, patients will not seek health services, and care providers will never sufficiently improve their efforts to increase the quality of the care they deliver. 

To encourage patients to trust the health sector in Rwanda, we must not only provide high quality services that are based on the latest science but also employ effective communication strategies to convince patients of this.

At King Faisal Hospital, an internationally accredited hospital in Kigali, we have well-trained and diligent health providers. Across the country, providers are working together with the share goal of improving access and quality of care, from the most highly trained specialist doctors and nurses in referral hospitals to community health workers at village level. Along with our international partners, we are making strides to provide highly specialized services. For example, Rwandan surgeons and their European, American, and Australian colleagues have performed more than 150 heart surgeries in King Faisal operating theaters, as well as two recent kidney transplants and many difficult neurosurgery procedures. 

Furthermore, the Ministry of Health has developed a Charter of Patients as well as new guidelines for the implementation of customer care. These include the posting of a phone number and the photo of responsible official at the entrance to each ward, the placement of a suggestion box in each hospital, and a toll-free call center for reporting problems and making requests. While taking these steps is a promising start, we will need to follow through in assuring proper implementation of these measures if they are to contribute to continued increases in the quality of care. 

Yet some patients continue to prefer to travel abroad for care, choosing to pay more for basic services, such as dental or antenatal services, that exist in their homeland. Why is it that some Rwandans go spend their money on health services in another country instead of remaining here where those funds could help to develop our health sector? The answer is two-fold: first, we cannot deny that there are some cases of unacceptable malpractices that threaten trust in the entire Rwandan health system. The Ministry of Health is working hard to increase accountability, and we investigate all complaints made through our publicly available channels, the Rwandan Medical Council, the Rwandan Nursing and Midwifery Council, and the Police. 

Second, there has historically been a general lack of customer care, with providers not making the effort to smile, to welcome the patient, to carefully explain the causes of suffering to patients and their families. Sometimes it seems to patients that we do not like our work! This is a general problem in Rwanda, as we can also find the same attitude in restaurants, hotels, and administrative areas of the services sector.

Such individual experiences undermine our collective efforts to increase confidence in and utilization of the public health sector. This is why health professionals must have zero tolerance for medical malpractice of any kind, nor for any lack of respect or compassion for patients. We should not expect of ourselves anything less than the highest standard of customer care. Declining trust places a massive cost on all aspects of the health system, for if our own people do not trust the services provided, foreigners paying full prices certainly will not. As a result, potential tourists and investors who would need care during their stay in Rwanda may not wish to seek care here, and we lose money that could have served our development.

The second, and equally important, form of trust needed for a strong health system is that of providers trusting patients. In some critical care situations, health professionals may take risks for themselves to act quickly in order to save a life. If they do not trust the patient, they may take time at first to reflect on the risk they are putting themselves at and be unnecessarily cautious if they believe that the patient may later turn against them. 

What are the reasons a provider may not trust their patient? One example occurred just this month, when a patient and family alleged that a doctor had forgotten to remove materials from her womb fully four years ago. A team of multiple Rwandan clinicians, an international expert, and several Rwandan Police are still working to fully resolve the case, having spent significant amounts of time and energy investigating and uncovering the truth. This time could have been used to serve other patients.

The final form of trust essential for the health sector is related to team building and professional development. All members of a team engaged in the provision of medical care must be confident in each other’s ability to act quickly and to act as one for the benefit of their patients. If one provider lacks trust in their colleague, she or he will spend time to re-check everything their colleague has done before proceeding to the next step. Again, the time and energy lost constitutes a missed opportunity to serve additional patients.

So let’s all work together to inspire people and to build an enabling environment for trust to flourish and create positive changes. Trust is needed for the population to feel confident in seeking services, and for the health professionals to effectively deliver them. To advance this work, we will combat false perceptions and work to provide higher quality services and better customer care at all levels of the health system. This is our duty – not a favor that we give to our population. 

It is in this spirit of trust that I encourage all in the Rwandan health sector to enter into the year 2012 with inspired standards of care, proper customer care, and overall trust in one another. I wish the entire nation a fruitful and successful year full of progress. We all have been or will one day be clients of the health sector, so let us all commit to working together to build the trust needed to achieve our collective goals. Happy 2012.