The dangers of diagnostic error are obvious for both doctors and their patients, yet more needs to be done in the South African context for a more patient-centred approach in healthcare to emerge.
Diagnostic error is a major problem for healthcare globally, both in common and rare diseases. It’s estimated that most people will experience at least one diagnostic failure in their lives, sometimes with profound, long-lasting consequences. Because of its importance and its relative low cost, accurate diagnostic testing needs to be at the forefront of a more empathetic approach to the practice of healthcare.
Better diagnostic testing
Although quality health care is a constitutional right, both for patients in the public and private domains, recent findings show that most South Africans distrust the overall healthcare system. According to Indwe Risk Services, improving the quality of patient care through better diagnostic testing presents an opportunity to reduce delays in preventative care, boost efficiency and lower costs. This was evidenced with the success of HIV testing in the past and, more recently, with COVID testing in March 2020 – when community healthcare workers focused on helping thousands of people know their actual health status.
Improving patient experience
While South Africa’s healthcare system is two-tiered and many patients in public-health settings are not given the care they deserve, there is a global movement towards improving the patient experience. In private health care, there is increasing competition among medical professionals and hospitals to become more engaged in the way in which they guide their patients’ experiences and provide high-value care, says another medmal advisor, MC de Villiers Brokers.
This can be accomplished through convenient and timely procedures, reducing waiting times for diagnostic tests and starting care as soon as results are known. Making patients and their families more involved in their own health journey allows them to feel more empowered and proactive, less anxious about procedures and more emotionally connected to their healthcare team.
The role of technology
At the same time as focus is being shifted from medical practitioners to patients, more changes are being felt in health care thanks to digitisation. Electronic health records, self-monitoring tools, including mobile apps and AI analytics, are making it easier for patients to manage their own well being. This makes patients active participants who are able to make their own medical choices, rather than passive recipients of health-care treatment.
In the South African context, the latest technology – such as point-of-care diagnostic tools – have the ability to help many communities in remote and under-serviced locations. Organisations such as the CSIR are involved in trying to develop the right technologies so as to improve the record keeping of patients’ data and to grant access to vital screening and pathology tests – but there are several constraints.
Promoting patient loyalty
As well as including family members in the circle of care, there is much that can be done to improve diagnosis and health outcomes for patients. The aim of accurate diagnosis is to catch disease early on, and thereby to avoid or delay its onset. Through the sharing of relevant and scientifically sound information, patients and their families can learn more about scheduled hospital procedures – helping them to know what to expect at every stage.
Because patient experience is the sum total of all interactions with the spectrum of healthcare professionals, it’s vital that these experiences are positive. At the early stages of treatment, much can be done to boost diagnostic accuracy, helping patients to avoid undesirable health outcomes. Moreover, having positive interactions boosts patient loyalty to medical providers, from staff to hospitals, and encourages greater compliance and healthier long-term behaviour.