Patty Skolnik’s only child, Michael, died nearly 10 years ago, but to her, it feels like yesterday.
She wishes she could have been a better advocate, able to catch or prevent the many errors that she says occurred over the three years after Michael, then 22, collapsed from a seizure and arrived at a Denver, Colo., emergency room. He died three years later, June 4, 2004, after multiple surgeries, infections, blood clots and months in intensive care.
The experience led Skolnik, a social worker by training, to quit her corporate job and found a nonprofit organization, Citizens for Patient Safety, to advocate for consumers and encourage transparency and better health care.
She’ll tell her story Thursday at the annual community health luncheon sponsored by the Mecklenburg Medical Alliance and Endowment. Her topic: “Finding Your Way Through a Safe Healthcare Journey.”
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Skolnik and her husband, David, allege their son’s neurosurgeon operated unnecessarily and then botched the surgery, leading to brain damage and a cascade of other mistakes. Their son’s total medical bill was about $5 million.
The Colorado couple eventually learned that their son’s surgeon had previously been sued for malpractice in Georgia. They also sued and settled for an undisclosed sum.
As a result of Skolnik’s efforts, Colorado has enacted state laws that require doctors, nurses and other health care providers to complete online profiles that include their qualifications and malpractice histories. In North Carolina, the medical board posts malpractice, disciplinary and criminal history of doctors and physician assistants on its website, but that information isn’t readily available for other health professionals.
“We didn’t do it as a witch hunt,” Skolnik said. “We did it for consumers to have all the information they need to make an informed decision. We are two intelligent, educated people, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what questions to ask.”
Skolnik spends much of her time teaching seminars – “Patient Advocacy 101” – to consumers around the country. She has received a grant to train retired doctors and nurses to teach the courses as well.
She visits hospitals to lead “Grand Rounds” discussions for medical residents and physicians about how to talk with patients and families and include them in decision-making. “I’m very passionate about doctors being able to communicate with their patients and listen, instead of being defensive,” she said.
Anyone undergoing a hospital procedure should have an advocate “24/7,” Skolnik said.
“The first thing you have to do is speak up,” she said. “(Tell the doctors and nurses) ‘I want to be on the health care team. Give me the risks and the benefits and the alternatives, including doing nothing at all.’ A conversation can change an outcome or save a life.”