A hospital that primarily serves black, brown and immigrant clients in East Boston announced Tuesday that it launched a patient advocacy office in November in response to allegations against the hospital.
Greg Wilmot, vice president of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, said the new office will allow the center to respond more quickly to community concerns.
“The Office of the Patient Advocate serves as an additional resource for the community and our patients to share their thoughts about their experiences with the hospital,” he said. “What we learned from last year’s feedback is that people always feel safe or comfortable coming to us.”
In the past, patients could complain in front of the desk, or directly to their support staff. Patients can now contact patient advocates about issues such as concerns about being misled by a nurse, concerns about lack of follow-up by a doctor or communication that makes them feel uncomfortable.
“They can communicate with the Office of Patient Advocates and they take care on behalf of the patient, making sure their concerns are documented, understood, and that we’re following them as an organization,” Wilmot said.
The announcement comes a year after a group of Central American families, mostly undocumented, were suspected of lack of medical care and poor transportation at the site. This includes the story of Ligia Guardago, who told GBH News that she went to the hospital in 2020 with her infant son who was helpless and sick. He says he was told the condition was not serious during a 20-minute examination. He died the next day and was taken by ambulance to Boston Medical Center.
Without going into detail about the infant’s death, Wilmot said a case like Guardago’s would be followed closely, including reporting to state and local agencies, as well as an internal review involving a group of health professionals.
Other predictors include children, long wait times and a lack of informed patient care.
Last year, the nonprofit organizations Centro Presente and Lawyers for Civil Rights took the complaint to Attorney General Maura Healey for investigation. Healey’s office launched an investigation, but not an official investigation.
“We contacted all parties and encouraged them to work together to address the concerns of the community and find opportunities to improve the health care for women who come to the hospital,” said a spokesperson for the Attorney General. office on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for East Boston Neighborhood Health Center told GBH that the new Patient Advocate Office “has dealt with 31 patients since the beginning of its operation in November 2022. All of these issues have been resolved.” The spokesman also wanted to comment on the situation, saying that the hospitals see more than 100,000 patients a year.
There are three new staff members in the Office of the Patient Advocate and the center hopes to hire more staff. Wilmot says the center is also launching a new acute care program by the end of the year, with the help of a $7 million grant from the state, which he described as the first of its kind at a Massachusetts hospital.
Tuesday’s announcement was met with warm praise by local attorneys who called for a central investigation.
“It’s good that they’re doing this, that they’re doing this,” said Patricia Montes, director of Centro Presente, an organization that advocates for refugees to help a dozen patients with their complaints. “Why did they wait until we had a mother who lost a child?”
Montes said there have been additional complaints. Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the head of the Lawyers for Civil Rights organization, said the center should do something to solve the problem. Among the improvements, he says the center needs more interpreters, reduced waiting times and special training to deal with perceived discrimination.
“It is not enough to have one office dedicated to patients to address the concerns that patients and the community have about mental health and discrimination,” she said.
Both sides have never met to discuss patients. The hospital knows the names of the patients and the details of their cases, Espinoza-Madrigal said, but declined to meet with Lawyers for Civil Rights and Centro Presente. In the meantime, the hospital said that the parties refused to meet with them.
Wilmot said there have been no objections to the complaints, but the office has cooperated with the Attorney General’s office and regulators on every question they asked. These include the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services and the state Department of Public Health.
“We’ve had several regulators investigate the allegations,” he said. “Among these, there were, as I explain, what I have found, but I cannot speak to what charges or concerns. It was prepared ‘satisfactorily’ for all the authorities.”
Wilmot said the center collected data on patient complaints and adverse reactions to inform regulators, but the patient advocacy office is another resource. A spokesperson later told GBH News that high-profile reports and events are conducted in collaboration with Boston Medical Center.
“In the calendar years 2021 and 2022, there were no cases that needed to be reported to the DPH or any other regulatory agency. All cases are systematically reviewed to identify any opportunities for improvement and ensure the highest quality of care for all patients,” said the spokesperson.
Wilmot said the hospital has provided useless information about patients and cases. But Espinoza-Madrigal said the patients still want answers.
“They want the hospital to review and review its policies and procedures to prevent wrongful diagnosis and inappropriate care,” he said. “This should include a review of all medical procedures. Together with these recommendations there should be a plan that the hospital uses to improve its services and its communication with the community.”