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Cancer: A Failure to Communicate - Reflection by Doha Raik Hamza
The primary issue that presents itself vividly in this case is that of interpretation, and the central role communication plays in our lives. While the health care setting today boasts numerous creative innovations that have saved the lives of many, there are certain aspects of the provision of U.S. healthcare that remain quite primitive, although they are crucial to patient well-being. Language interpretation is one of these. Here, the hospital had three days to gather Mr. Tabrizi's complete history, which could have been arranged through the use of phone interpretation services or through an interpreter from an agency. Yet it instead relies on the availability of the son to translate.
Mr. Tabrizi's reluctance to share facts about his personal or familial medical history could be a manifestation of his lack of trust in the medical team. His trust only deteriorates as he remains adamant about consuming a minimum amount of hospital food for fear of the presence of pork products. An effort to provide details on the nutritional ingredients of the hospital meals, which can generally be obtained from nutritional services, might have been a simple gesture that could have helped gain Mr. Tabrizi's trust and facilitated his cooperation with the medical team. If we try for a moment to see the world from Mr. Tabrizi's eyes, we will probably see a 69-year old isolated male who speaks no English, in an unfamiliar hospital setting, sick, and anxious for test results. It all indicates a very vulnerable and fragile person with an exacerbated sense of helplessness and frustration for lacking the ability to relay his own basic needs and wishes. One empathizes with the medical team and the many procedures and quality of care that need to be provided equally to all patients, but it is little gestures like these-providing culturally competent interpretation, ensuring the patient is aware of the food ingredients, providing reading material in the patient's native language, etc.-that could very well have bridged the gap between the patient and the medical team and provided an avenue for culturally competent communication.
Yet, despite the warning signs, Dr. Looke, having received
the test results, proceeds to tell Mr. Tabrizi the grave diagnosis
through his son. If we analyze the conversation, we will note
the following cultural packaging of news that the son remarkably
accomplishes, in spite of tremendous stress:
Many Muslim patients seem to cope better with a culturally-sensitive packaging of grave news, and that almost always also implies a gradual disclosure of a negative prognosis, an approach that may not be available to Dr. Looke, given the other patients he has to see and the limited time he can spend with Mr. Tabrizi and his family. After such a stressful encounter as the one described here, one would hear the sad lamentation, "They just do not understand us!" from some Muslim patients and their families. Dr. Looke as well as the Tabrizi family would have been in a better position if the doctor had sought to ascertain whether or not Mr. Tabrizi wished to be fully informed of his medical condition. If the patient had forfeited his right to know, the family could then have chosen to disclose the information as gradually as it wanted to.
The issues described in this case are not easy to resolve, since for all parties involved, they revolve around what is perceived as crucial to a patient's wellbeing, i.e. to be fully informed of the medical condition (Dr. Looke's position), and not to be told bad news for fear of its impact (the Tabrizi family's position). Perhaps the answer lies in a resolution as described above, one that could clear the clinician of any ethical impropriety and nevertheless respect the patient's cultural requests. Such resolution might bring the clinicians out of their comfort zone as they are asked to respect cultural values that they may not necessarily embrace.
Finally, Mr. Tabrizi's case highlights the crucial need for more collaboration between hospitals and their local Muslim communities, or on a national level between the healthcare communities and the U.S. Muslim umbrella organizations. The fruit of such collaboration could be community outreach programs, devised by both entities and focused on Muslim patients' needs and issues such as: patient autonomy, explanation of Muslim patients' rights and responsibilities, advance healthcare directives, palliative care, and organ donation. In fact, the discussion of such important topics is almost non-existent in many Muslim communities, yet Muslims, as patients, continue to face them every day when a loved one falls sick, and they often struggle to find satisfactory answers alone. Such a preemptive program could provide an open forum for discussion of sensitive topics, with the involvement of concerned individuals, such as Muslim religious scholars, physicians, and patients. Such discussions are sure to raise awareness and generate practical and helpful recommendations for the healthcare organizations and for Muslim patients.
This collaboration could also prove very helpful in identifying local Muslim individuals who are willing to provide support to their co-religionists in cases of emergency. These individuals, such as local Imams, chaplains, or trained Muslim volunteers, could act as a bridge between the medical team and Muslim patients, which would have been invaluable in the case of Mr. Tabrizi.