Five Questions with Linda K. Kenney

Linda K
Linda K. Kenney, founder and director of Medically Induced Trauma Support Services (MITSS).

Linda K. Kenney, executive director and president of MITSS (Medically Induced Trauma Support Services Inc.), founded the organization in 2002, three years after her own experience with medically induced trauma nearly left her dead. She was motivated by the lack of emotional support services for patients, families, and care providers following adverse events, and she outlined an agenda for reform. 

Since then, Kenney has been a powerful activist for patient, family, and clinician rights. She is a nationally and internationally recognized leader in the patient safety movement and speaks regularly at health care conferences and forums. In 2006, she was the first consumer graduate of the prestigious HRET/AHA Patient Leadership Fellowship. That year, she also received the National Patient Safety Foundation’s Socius Award, given in recognition of effective partnering in pursuit of patient safety.

1. Betsy Lehman Center: What was your own experience and how did it lead you to this mission?

Kenney: I went into the hospital for ankle-replacement surgery and came home with a rewired chest. It was my 20th surgery, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to me, my family, or my friends. Just after I was given a pain block, I had a grand mal seizure followed by full cardiac arrest. When I realized what had happened, I was so grateful to be alive. I felt extremely fortunate knowing that most people wouldn’t survive an event like this. When I was discharged, I was given instructions on how to care for my chest and information about a visiting nurse. But no one informed me of the emotional impact an event like this would have on me or my family.

I soon realized this was bigger than me. More than likely, other patients and families as well as clinicians were not being emotionally supported after unexpected outcomes and medical errors. There were many reasons — fear of litigation, the health care culture, no infrastructure for emotional support, and so on. I came to know first-hand there was a large hole in the health care system that needed to be filled. I felt compelled to change a system that had failed me.

2. Betsy Lehman Center: What was the impetus of the “Healing After Harm” conference?

Kenney: Well, there is study after study of the emotional impact of adverse events on clinicians — whether they be surgeons, nurses, or their families — and I became extremely frustrated because we still have not focused on the emotional harm to the patients or their families. MITSS has been beating the drum on this issue for years. There’s a sense that the communication and resolution programs are enough, but we still don’t understand the short- and long-term psychological impact. There are people who have lost children as well as loved ones and honestly those people will be forever scarred.

3. Betsy Lehman Center: How important is this effort to patients and their loved ones?

Kenney: Most patients and/or families want to be part of the solution, and we need to develop ways for them to become active in fixing the system. Some people get involved at the global level, others at the community level, or by joining hospital quality and safety committees. We have a loose psychological term, “meaning making.” When people know they can possibly help another family not have to suffer what they had to suffer I think it feels like maybe there is some meaning from their tragedy. It’s a way to help move forward.

4. Betsy Lehman Center: What kind of research are you envisioning?

Kenney: I would like to see researchers start collectively tracking patients over time, say three years or so, to truly understand the scope of the emotional impact. There is a ton of research with regard to clinicians, yet on the patient side we have not addressed a single thing in the emotional realm. But this is tough stuff. You have been harmed as a patient and now we are asking you, “Can we follow you for the next three years?”

5. Betsy Lehman Center: What’s a key takeaway from the conference?

Kenney: It’s clear there’s a strong appetite for this data. Believe it or not this conference was two years in the making — researchers, patients and families were all on board with the idea. I think Lucian Leape (founding chair of the National Patient Safety Foundation's Lucian Leape Institute, which provides a strategic vision for enhancing patient safety) expressed it best when he said the first harm is the physical one, but then we have to start thinking about the second harm, and that’s the emotional one, and decide what do we do for that.

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