Making the call

August 03, 2007

When an accident happens, a family member should be notified as soon as possible. This is a service everyone has a right to expect, and that police and hospitals have long provided. But it appears that in at least one recent Baltimore County case, that obligation wasn't met.

That failure underscores the need for the institutions involved in emergency care to have a written policy that spells out who is responsible for what.

Gregory Guston, 52, of Monkton died May 2 at Maryland Shock Trauma Center about 3 1/2 hours after his car veered off the road and hit a tree in northern Baltimore County. His wife found out what had happened 90 minutes after his death when a police investigator showed up at her door. She greatly regrets missing the hours she might have been by his side.

It's not clear why it took so long to contact Mr. Guston's family, and hospital officials say they are reviewing the incident. The fact that his home phone number was unlisted was hardly an overwhelming obstacle.

Baltimore County police and hospital officials say the current practice is for someone at the hospital to contact the patient's next of kin. Baltimore County police generally take on that duty when an accident victim is dead at the scene or the hospital requests assistance.

That's a reasonable approach. Medical personnel are better equipped to inform families, while police could well be delayed with obligations at an accident scene. But neither county police nor hospital officials have committed that policy to writing. Why? No one seems to know for sure. Emergency procedures vary in the Baltimore area, but most jurisdictions have them written down.

Would the outcome have been different in Mr. Guston's death? Perhaps. Printed words don't prevent mistakes, but not having a written policy certainly makes it a lot harder to assign blame.

It also doesn't reflect well on the two otherwise well-regarded institutions involved. Clarifying who should handle this important responsibility won't help the Guston family, but it would offer some assurance that such a mistake is less likely to happen again.

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