Letters to the editor at the Peace Arch News tend to tell two kinds of stories about care received at Peace Arch Hospital.
The first kind of letter, recounting the circumstances of a recent hospitalization, will have nothing but praise for doctors, nurses and support staff that saw the writer or a loved one through a medical crisis.
The second kind of letter – rarer, but frequent enough to be cause for concern – paints a different picture.
It’s one of confused patients – often seniors – left alone for hours, in pain or acute discomfort , in hospital beds, or on gurneys or chairs in hallways, seemingly unable to receive any attention or guidance from staff too busy with other cases.
Linda Perkins and Tom Holland, both Peninsula seniors who volunteer as ‘patient partners’ at the hospital, nod their heads at this scenario.
It’s not unfamiliar to them, they say, and it’s part of what drives them to continue their role as patient advocates.
“There are times when everything can seem to go wrong,” Perkins acknowledges, pointing out that while volume of cases can be a contributing factor, in many cases, patient and family frustrations can be a result of a communication gap.
And while the patient partners’ role precludes them from getting involved in the rights and wrongs of specific cases, it does allow them to make practical suggestions to hospital management that can avoid similar situations in future.
Ordinary people in the community – who may feel powerless to effect change – can, in fact, make a difference by volunteering to become patient partners just like themselves, they say.
The role is an advisory position – representing the needs and concerns of the average patient – that Fraser Health, following an approach mandated by the Ministry of Health, acknowledges is crucial in the decision making process.
Both PAH and Delta Hospital have versions of the same program, senior communications consultant Nick Eagland noted.
“Patient partners meet regularly to advance patient and family involvement in health care planning and service delivery,” he said.
“They play an important role bringing the patient and family voice and perspective to our leadership tables. This helps ensure their feedback is considered in decisions being made about processes and practices by health care providers.”
“We started in 2015,” Perkins said, adding that both she and Holland are co-founders of the Peace Arch program.
“The first one to really get organized was at at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver,” she said. “The idea is so established there that when a meeting is set up to plan something, the next thing they ask is ‘do we have a patient partner who can attend?’”
She said that while the program at PAH “still has a ways to go” to reach that point, it’s heading in the right direction.
The kinds of issues patient partners advise on, they said, can range from effective way-finding signage for the average hospital user, to making sure that information kiosks are the right height, to advising on information technology upgrades, to conducting surveys to help advise on the kind of hip protectors preferred by patients as protection against falls.
A decision on what time medications are administered to patients might make sense from a medical staff perspective, Perkins said – but patient partners can help assess whether that actually fits the needs of patients.
“There’s also a lot of medical vocabulary that staff use that isn’t necessarily understood by patients,” she added.
But it’s a component of the management process that has suffered recently, because of COVID-19, Holland said.
“The pandemic decimated the program,” he said, adding that lock-downs and isolation – and not being able to attend meetings at the hospital – took an inevitable toll on a volunteer-driven undertaking that Zoom meetings could not make up for.
“We went from 12 members to three,” he said. “We’ve since built up to five, but it would be nice if we had as many as 15 or 20.”
Although they are looking for participants with some experience of health care – even if only as a recipient, there are no set qualifications or limits on volunteers, although it is a role ideally suited to retirees.
Time commitment is flexible, Perkins added.
“It could go from two hours a month to 25 hours a month – it’s all up to the individual what they want to take on. But we do ask for a one-year commitment.’
“We’re looking for people from all walks of life,” Holland said. “But we find it it beneficial if there is a specific area where their interest is.”
“They can have all kinds of backgrounds and expertise,” Perkins said. “We’ve had teachers and we’ve had business people. As long as they have a passion for improving health care, it doesn’t matter.”
Those interested in learning more about the Patient Partner Program can contact volunteer services at Peace Arch Hospital at 604-531-5512 (local 757511).