Computer-generated correspondence is nothing new. Most of us have gotten plenty. In certain contexts, such communications can be downright bizarre or even humorous. Unfortunately, the impact can also be incredibly cruel.
Our client’s 27-year-old son died in June 2019. Her son underwent bariatric surgery and the care he got from the VA was problematic, at best. The death was an avoidable one. Last week, a letter addressed to her son was delivered to her house. Of course, she opened it. A big cheery Happy New Year invited her son to join a bariatric surgery support group.
It’s not hard to see how such a letter could be generated. The sender almost certainly did not mean to send this invitation to a deceased patient. Even though over a year and a half had passed, the list simply wasn’t updated as it should have been. It happens. There is no malice here, but the effect on this mother was devastatingly cruel. Talk about opening up wounds and refreshing someone’s pain.
On the one hand, you can look at what happened and call it an unfortunate error, a risk of our modern digital world. There is some truth to that. On the other hand, you could say that healthcare institutions have a higher obligation to be careful about the information they disseminate and, therefore, care should have been taken to purge deceased patients. The latter is the better argument. This letter never should have gone out.
Perhaps it is unfair to take this sad event and link it to the many issues we see with the VA’s healthcare. However, these sorts of low-level administrative screw-ups are commonplace. No one is surprised. It’s things like appointments getting dropped or consults not being requested. Veterans are not called and told to come back. Sometimes information gets into a patient’s chart and no one pays attention to it. The examples are countless. The effects are often tragic.
Healthcare providers are dealing with real people. Of course, their primary concern has to be the medical issues of their patients, but you cannot ignore the emotional impact of your conduct. Compared to the death of her son, seeing this letter might have been relatively minor for this mother. She has endured far worse. Even so, it was a needless infliction of pain on a grieving parent – and it should never have happened.