Steps toward creating a therapeutic community for inpatients suffering from chronic ulcers: lessons from Allada Buruli Ulcer Treatment Hospital in Benin.
BACKGROUND: Reducing social distance between hospital staff and patients and establishing clear lines of communication is a major challenge when providing in-patient care for people afflicted by Buruli ulcer (BU) and chronic ulcers. Research on hospitals as therapeutic communities is virtually non-existent in Africa and is currently being called for by medical anthropologists working in the field of health service and policy planning. This paper describes a pioneering attempt to establish a therapeutic community for patients suffering from BU and other chronic ulcers requiring long term hospital care in Benin.
METHODS: A six-month pilot project was undertaken with the objectives of establishing a therapeutic community and evaluating its impact on practitioner and patient relations. The project was designed and implemented by a team of social scientists working in concert with the current and previous director of a hospital serving patients suffering from advanced stage BU and other chronic ulcers. Qualitative research initially investigated patients' understanding of their illness and its treatment, identified questions patients had about their hospitalization, and ascertained their level of social support. Newly designed question-answer health education sessions were developed. Following these hospital wide education sessions, open forums were held each week to provide an opportunity for patients and hospital staff to express concerns and render sources of discontent transparent. Patient group representatives then met with hospital staff to problem solve issues in a non-confrontational manner. Psychosocial support for individual patients was provided in a second intervention which took the form of drop-in counseling sessions with social scientists trained to serve as therapy facilitators and culture brokers.
RESULTS: Interviews with patients revealed that most patients had very little information about the identity of their illness and the duration of their treatment. This knowledge gap surprised clinic staff members, who assumed someone had provided this information. Individual counseling and weekly education sessions corrected this information gap and reduced patient concerns about their treatment and the status of their healing process. This led to positive changes in staff-patient interactions. There was widespread consensus among both patients and staff that the quality of communication had increased significantly. Open forums providing an opportunity for patients and staff to air grievances were likewise popular and patient representative meetings resulted in productive problem solving supported by the hospital administration. Some systemic problems, however, remained persistent challenges. Patients with ulcers unrelated to BU questioned why BU patients were receiving preferential treatment, given special medicines, and charged less for their care. The idea of subsidized treatment for one disease and not another was hard to justify, especially given that BU is not contagious.
CONCLUSION: This pilot project illustrates the basic principles necessary for transforming long term residential hospitals into therapeutic communities. Although the focus of this case study was patients suffering from chronic ulcers, the model presented is relevant for other types of patients with cultural adaptation.