Patients’ rights protected on paper, yet fail in practice

July 01, 2012, Sunday/ 12:57:00/ MERVE BÜŞRA ÖZTÜRK

Although the subject of patients’ rights has risen on the public and governmental agenda in Turkey for the past decade, there is still a long way to go until all patients know their rights and the health system gives them confidence to fight for their rights, a view supported by a recent workshop.

The issue of patients’ rights has recently topped the agenda due to attacks on patients by health professionals and claims that the Health Ministry asks family doctors to send text messages to the families of women who receive positive pregnancy tests at healthcare centers run by the ministry. Although the ministry denied the claims, it sparked heated discussions about a patient’s right to privacy. Many doctors and lawyers argued that revealing a patient’s condition is totally against a patient’s right to keep their medical condition confidential.

The patients’ rights issue in Turkey assumed a legal dimension with a regulation put into effect in Turkey on Aug. 1, 1998. This regulation defines patients’ rights as a reflection of fundamental human rights in the field of medicine and incorporates all elements of patients’ rights accepted by many other countries. These include the right to keep a patient’s medical condition confidential if he or she chooses to; the right to be informed about his or her medical condition and about necessary treatment; the right to be asked permission before doctors start a treatment; the right to have a person accompanying him or her while undergoing a treatment, and the like.

“The regulation is just fine in itself. However, one of the biggest problems about the patients’ rights regulation is the failure and challenge in its implementation,” Ahmet Nezih Kök, a doctor at Atatürk University Medicine Faculty, told Sunday’s Zaman. “The problem of its implementation lies in maintaining a balance between safeguarding patients with sufficient legal protection and ensuring that health professionals perform their job while respecting these patients’ rights. However, I believe patients’ rights will be known by more people in the future when awareness of such rights increases within society,” he said.

Last week’s “Workshop about Violence in the Health Services,” jointly organized by Zirve University in the southeastern province of Gaziantep and the Southeastern International Health Federation (GUSAF), put forward some suggestions for the health system in Turkey. These include: The rights and responsibilities of healthcare professionals should be written up and displayed clearly on hospital walls and distributed to the media; nongovernmental inspectors and trained mediators should be assigned to hospitals to avoid misunderstandings, lack of information and failures in communication between health professionals and patients; lectures on anger management, communication with patients, crisis management and patients’ rights should be given to health professionals; and violent incidents occurring between patients and health professionals must be objectively conveyed to the media only by relevant authorities that are well-informed about the incidents.

The coordinator of the workshop, Dr. Yahya Deryal, has complained that few patients are aware of their rights and said it is both the media’s and the Health Ministry’s duty to inform people about them. Apart from the Health Ministry, NGOs, educational institutions and the media should be involved in the process of raising awareness, according to Deryal. “When a news report about a patient having been beaten up by a nurse appears in the newspaper one day, the next day we see at least three different stories about patients being victims of violence by healthcare officers. This indicates that it is whether some of these news reports regarding violence against patients are false or exaggerated for the purpose of drawing attention to the criticality of the issue, or these stories were ignored before and when this issue of violence against patients came up to the agenda, it suddenly became something worth being written. Either way, it is a sad situation,” he said.

As a recent positive development, a series of seminars have been launched by the Afyonkarahisar Province Health Directorate, giving health professionals lectures about “healthy communication.” Open to any health professional in the province, the seminars aimed to establish a healthy communication between patients, their relatives and health professionals. “This seminars do not claim that health professionals are the ones that are always at fault, or the ones with communication problems. But they are to question our attitudes towards patients and their relatives. Yet, when we are sure that our attitude towards them is correct and still we have a problem with our patients, then we have to be able to deal with these patients rather than just putting the blame on patients and giving up,” said İsmail Hakkı Nakilcioğlu, a lecturer at the seminars. A total of 841 healthcare professionals in the province attended the seminars.