Emory Healthcare stumbles in form letter to dead patient's parents

After a pulmonologist at Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare left for a job in Cleveland, the health system notified his patients — and sent an error-filled letter to one patient's parents four years after her death, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

"My leaving in no way diminishes my concern for you and your well-being," pulmonologist Seth Walker, MD, wrote in the letter.

The letter had numerous typos the family of Dr. Walker's patient, Kaitlin Fowler, found disconcerting. Ms. Fowler's parents received the letter four years after she died of cystic fibrosis at Emory University Hospital, the AJC reports. 

"We're just amazed," said Jeff Fowler, Kaitlin's father. "It's like … how can you send this out to us?" The Fowlers told the AJC they knew another family who also received such a letter sent to their dead child.

The incident highlights a tension in a human-centered trend in healthcare, said Jason Wolf, PhD, president of the Beryl Institute, a nonprofit focused on improving patient experience, and founding editor of the Patient Experience Journal.

"You want to give them a little bit of credit," Dr. Wolf said. "It's good you're being active in your outreach. But you've got to be mindful in the way you do it."

But a different patient experience expert said not to read too much into incidents like the typo-filled letter.

"I'd be more concerned if something like that happened during the episode of care," said William Maples, MD, an oncologist and president of the Institute of Healthcare Excellence, which partners with healthcare organizations to help foster a compassionate and safe environment.

"If a physician did not create an environment where the patient felt respected, cared for, heard, listened to …those are the critical things," said Dr. Maples.

It is crucial for physicians to create an environment where patients and team members can speak up, Dr. Maples said. That way, healthcare providers can have all the necessary information to make the right choices.

Although Emory did not say how the mistakes happened, the health system said it was working to prevent an incident like the letter from happening again.

"Emory Healthcare is deeply sorry for sending a physician's departure letter to the family of a deceased patient and for the pain and disruption this error caused," a statement from the health system said. "The letter and its distribution were not up to Emory's quality standards."

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