Individuals who sustain brain injury face a unique challenge with their health professionals. Brain injury is now widely viewed as a disease in the medical field, however patients are not yet granted the benefits and opportunities in treatment as are necessary for disease management. Increasing awareness of brain injury as a disease, and exploring the challenges of brain injury treatment will help us reevaluate our current system.
Brain Injury as a Disease
A brain injury is remarkably complex. Emerging evidence suggests that, like cancer, brain injury may actually be comprised of a number of distinct diseases that vary by the etiology of the injury, the nature of the injury, co-morbid health conditions prior to and since the injury, and factors such as gender, race, age, for example.
When the brain is injured, consequential effects often occur within immune, endocrine, and autonomic nervous systems’ functions. Persons with brain injury can become very sick, very quickly, seemingly only heralded by relatively minor early symptoms. Though we do not fully understand why this heightened period of illness occurs, it is likely a result, in some capacity, of the changes to the body’s systems’ functions.
Challenges of Brain Injury Treatment
Medical professionals working within the confines of our current system are often unable to dedicate sufficient time to a patient with brain injury in order to address the full scope of his or her injury, which includes cognitive, behavioral, communicative, and/or physical disabilities. Furthermore, these medical professionals are rarely able to stay current enough on the case to identify advisable and inadvisable medical practice patterns, thereby increasing the odds of treatment-induced complications.
Patients and their families cannot assume that medical providers are alike in their knowledge and experience. For example, the notion that patients can be best followed by practitioners in their home community is seriously flawed. Locality does not replace the prerequisite for a practitioner with expertise on brain injury. In fact, many of these less experienced practitioners are unaware of the comparative medical fragility associated with brain injury. Many poor medical decisions could have been avoided had the proper brain injury specialist been consulted.
Additional challenges can be found in the person’s inability to fully and competently participate in his or her medical care and decision-making. Cognitive, behavioral, communicative and physical disabilities following brain injury can make it difficult, if not impossible, for a person to recognize changes in his or her health, convey those changes, recognize improvements, or a lack thereof, in health following a medical treatment or intervention, accurately convey medical history or the history of present health problem(s), obtain appointments for procedures or laboratory studies, obtain prescribed medications or otherwise properly adhere to a prescribed treatment regimen. One might conclude that the attendance of an advocate or family member to medical appointments will mitigate such difficulties, and while helpful, such participation often fails to provide improved results.
Reevaluating our Current System
In my career, I have seen many downstream medical decisions result in serious and, sometimes, deadly consequences. These have always been avoidable and unnecessary, and borne out of a lack of knowledge.
A general physician cannot reasonably manage a patient with a complicated cancer, and brain injury is no different in this regard. We need to develop mechanisms that enable a patient with a brain injury all the same benefits as those allowed patients with complicated diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. Simply put, there is no substitute for an individual case being followed closely by an experienced brain injury specialist.