Just a few short years ago, Althea Cobbs couldn’t possibly have imagined she would have a leadership role in a major healthcare system.
Cobbs, a former kindergarten teacher and retail store manager, retired from teaching when she became a dialysis patient. For three years, she took care of her own treatment, learning the ins and outs of her treatment and how the dialysis machine worked to cleanse her blood in a way that her kidneys were no longer able to.
Eventually though, as all dialysis patients do, she ended up the hospital—in this case, Roper St. Francis.
“I wound up having what they call a fluid overload,” she recalled. “I had to come up into the hospital for that.”
What awaited her at the hospital surprised her a bit. There was only one dialysis machine for hemodialysis—the kind she needed—and the nurses on staff that night seemed unfamiliar with how to use it.
“So I walked them through it myself with the help of my dialysis nurse from the clinic I go to,” she explained. “It was kind of scary, for both myself and the nurses. To be a patient and not know what to do, when you have a caregiver that doesn’t know what to do either, that’s really scary. So we were both grateful that I knew what to do.”
As Cobbs notes, it’s not particularly surprising that she would know more about her own care than her nurses—after all, she’s the one with first-hand, day-to-day knowledge of her treatment. “I’d already been trained to do it myself at home every day,” she pointed out. “I was able to give the nurses on shift that night some quick A-B-C education, I guess, on how to do it. Or even who to contact, like the Baxter company [which makes the dialysis machines], and what kinds of questions to ask.”
Cobbs’ poise in interacting with the nurses and willingness to intercede in standard operating procedure impressed the staff. And, as it turns out, the hospital was in the process of building a Patient and Family Engagement Council (PFEC). Thanks to her warm yet assertive presence and clear-eyed perspective, Cobb was an obvious candidate.
“Althea represents all the patients so very well. Her passion for ensuring the patient’s voice is shared exceeds expectations,” said Marion Martin, Director of Quality and Patient Safety at Roper St. Francis, who elevated Cobb to a leadership position on the PFEC.
“Her presence on the Quality Committee of [our hospital board] has changed the conversation. It is an honor to assist her in leading this wonderful group as we continue to enhance the patient partnership journey."
Cobbs recalls what it felt like starting out on the Council three years ago with apparent enthusiasm.
“I just got totally involved in trying to help other patients and family members,” she said. “I know several people that use Roper St. Francis as a hospital so I was just glad to be able to support them, to let them know that there is a support system there at the hospital that’s working for them outside of [strictly] healthcare workers.”
After serving on the council for two years, Cobbs was asked to take over and chair the Council, something which came as a surprise to her.
“It seemed big. I wasn’t sure I could do something like that, because I didn’t have any kind of medical or clinical background,” she admitted. “But I’ve done that task now for a while and it’s just been a great adventure. I’ve learned a lot, and we’ve been able to successfully have things put in place that I’m ecstatic about.”
“It’s important that every part of the hospital knows we are there. I think on our board we have someone representing every entity of the hospital, pretty much.”
Cobbs and St. Roper’s PFEC have made a demonstrable impact on the hospital, advocating for a number of changes and an increased awareness for patient and family’s perspectives in the system.
Some of the changes may seem small, but have a direct impact on patient care. A good example of this is the Council’s efforts to add hand wipes alongside silverware when delivered to a patient’s bedside.
“There was really no way for the patients to sanitize themselves, especially if they were not mobile,” Cobbs pointed out. While having the hand wipes isn’t a true substitute for washing your hands, it is better than nothing. “Everyone will at least be able to wipe their hands somewhat clean, and it will cut down on germs and things of that nature. That was really big for us. We’re trying to get that going in all of our hospitals [now].”
And while other initiatives are in the works, Cobbs also sees the role of the PFEC as simply providing a presence for families and patients as dedicated advocates.
“We go on rounds—sometimes with a nurse, sometimes without. We have business cards,” she said. “We just go in and ask patients and families a few questions—how long their stay is, what’s going on. We’re just introducing the importance of having someone there for them. They can ask us questions they can’t ask a nurse or a doctor.”
Cobbs’ time on the St. Roper Francis PFEC has clearly turned her into a strong force and advocate for patient involvement in the hospital system. In addition to her duties leading the council, she’s also been invited to speak on webinars for SCHA and the Carolinas Society for Healthcare Advocacy on the importance of having patients and families involved in the decision-making processes. She thrives on the opportunity to share her story and helping others.
“It's just in my nature, I think. Because I taught for so long, I kind of find it easy to get up and talk to people,” she explained. “Some people have a problem doing that and I understand that, but I love talking to people about something I'm passionate about.”
Thanks to leaders like Cobbs, South Carolina hospitals are learning how to fully integrate patients and families into their decision-making process, creating more highly reliable organizations delivering healthcare at the highest levels.