I figured out what we are missing in healthcare. Culturally we’ve gotten it wrong in recent years.
In terms of modern healthcare, delivery care has become more about practicing defensive medicine, insurmountable documentation requirements and electronic health records and less about specific people taking care of people.
That piece that’s missing in modern day healthcare is that human connection. Humanity – human beings collectively. More specifically people treating people with kindness, respect, and understanding.
With the technological advancements, the way computers and advanced imaging, and the institution of electronic medical records, AI, templates and the increased charting burden.
Here are 3 ways that we can work to bring humanity back into healthcare.
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First Up: Compassion
The first way that we can bring humanity back into healthcare is by exercising compassion. Compassion literally means “to suffer together”.
When I asked ChatGPT to define compassion it told me that compassion is a fundamental human emotion characterized by a deep awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to alleviate or reduce that suffering. It goes on to describe the act of being compassionate as empathizing with the experiences, emotions and struggles of others all while feeling motivated to take action to help them.
Bottom line – that sounds like a lot of the reason that we wanted to go into medicine in the first place.
Does compassion make a difference to our patients and the care we provide? Great question, I’m so glad you asked! It does!
Studies in Ireland, US and England showed that better patient satisfaction results from compassion. In fact, 87% of patients say that kindness is the most important thing they take into consideration when choosing a clinician. The other options for patients to choose were wait time, distance, and cost.
Which tells us that our patients care more about compassion and kindness than they do about how much it costs, how long they wait and how far they drive to see you.
Studies also show that patients who have a clinician that showed them compassion during their visits had less depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
Compassion also improves engagement and compliance with their patients.
Each compassionate statement that providers make reduces anxiety and the effects can last up to 6 months.
A compassionate oncologist is the one thing that most clearly predicts quality of life in an oncology patient. More than treatments, compliance and therapies chosen.
I know what you’re thinking – Tracy, I don’t have time for this compassion, I have patients waiting in another room, an in basket full of results and patient questions and 10 unsigned notes. I thought you might say that.
Guess what?It takes, on average, 40 seconds more in a patient visit to use more compassionate statements, body language and improve your interactions.
Here are a few ways to improve your visit compassion with patients:
Body Language – sitting down, leaning forward, looking patients in the eye, watching your arms – no crossed arms, an open posture and asking compassionate questions.
Avoid I-Statements – there are two people in this visit – you and the patient – make it about the patient. This seems so basic, but making it about them increases their perceived level of care. Be intentionally interested in their concerns, answer their questions, and take time.
Word Choice Matters – whether it’s saying no to antibiotics for a viral infection or refusing testing that a patient is pushing for, sometimes we simply have to say no. The way that we say no matters.
Instead of using phrases like “You don’t need X” and “It’s just Y”… opt to use language that highlights their suffering. Instead of “it’s just a virus” say “I think this is a nasty virus” and instead of “it’s just a sprain” say “Good news is that it isn’t a fracture, but I do think this is a bad sprain. The treatment plan is XYZ.”
Ultimately compassion is an ingredient that is missing in our interactions with patients. It brings us back to that human-to-human connection. The reason that we went into medicine – a shared experience of suffering – compassion helps us to meet patients where they are, relieve their pain, and help them on their way to wellness.
Thank yous go a long way. Whether it’s a “thank you for waiting” to a patient when you are running behind or sincere appreciation to your colleagues, nursing and support staff.
When we express gratitude, we create a positive feedback loop between ourselves and others. Those who we are actively appreciating feel more appreciated, leading to enhanced patient-provider relationships and enhanced social bonds within our teams. This results in an increased likelihood of reciprocal acts of kindness and support – both for patients and staff.
Beginning/End: At the beginning of your shift or day, greet those that are on your team and support staff. At the end of the day, say an earnest thank you to those who helped throughout your time taking care of patients.
Credential your team: Say you’re working in the ICU, rounding on patients and instead of saying “if you need anything, Stacey is your nurse today” you said “Today your nurse is Stacey today, she’s incredible and is going to take great care of you.”
It will credential your team and make your patient feel better about their care team. Your colleagues and nursing staff will overhear, know you have their back and feel great about themselves.
Have their back: Gossip is the opposite of gratitude. Seriously, I know this exists and, depending on your work culture, gossip may be commonplace, but saying things behind people’s back, specifically negative things, is the opposite of appreciating those on your team.
Have your teammates back. Take a hard look at whether you are one that is propagating a culture of gossip at work.
This is something that has been on my heart recently. At one point in my career I had a sit down with one of my support staff, checking in on a new workflow and how they were doing in a new position. During this meeting, this support staff team member expressed to me that she “knew people were talking about her” and shared that it was really bothering her.
My immediate response: defense. My more mature realization on self-reflection: I was a part of the problem.
I was speaking about people behind their backs and participating in office and department gossip on a regular basis. I’d be embarrassed to tell you that but, honestly, at this point I’m a person and I’m not perfect – you know this.
I made a concerted effort to be aware of the gossip happening around me. Intentionally avoided participating in that gossip, I became aware of the frequency of gossip.
At one point, when I was in a conversation with one other person who clearly wanted to talk about someone negatively and behind their back – I said “I recently made a policy that I’m only going to talk about what happened if I’m trying to find a solution to a specific problem.”
I will sometimes slip up and gossip, but by and large, I try to stick to that policy.
Ultimately showing appreciation to your patients for entrusting you with their care and your colleagues includes not gossiping about people. Try instead to focus on the problem and how to solve it instead of the patient or colleague in question.
Last but not least, in order to bring back humanity into healthcare, we need to be willing to be vulnerable. This one trips us up, big time, as historically the culture of healthcare has emphasized evidence based medicine, to be practiced without emotion.
When we share that we are humans who have emotions, struggles, challenges, good and bad days, that we are not perfect, not martyrs and not robots, we become more accessible and real to our patients and colleagues alike.
It can be easy, in the day-to-day of practicing medicine, to forget the vulnerability that our patients show us on any given day. Sometimes we have the ability to cultivate that relationship over time. Other times we are seeing patients for the very first time, when they are scared, hurting, in pain or nervous.
The amount of empathy and understanding, the kindness and respect we must extend to our patients in a short amount of time is huge. We work to make them feel comfortable enough to share things that are embarrassing, painful, or bothersome to them.
When we share our humanity, and let them know that we, too, are humans with a shared experience, we become more approachable to our patients.
We can lead by example in the vulnerability department. This is a shift that we have to make, person by person, office by office, department by department, in order to create a tidal wave within medicine.
We share our vulnerability with others when we share our challenges, when we bravely tell those around us that we are struggling with burnout, walking through health challenges, or even having a bad day.
Humans have bad days. We are humans!
I’m encouraging you to, in order to be humans taking care of other humans inside of the structure of the current healthcare systems, open up to those around you. Share who you are. The good and the bad. It’s OK to be a human!
Humanity in Healthcare
This wave of change, to infuse humanity back inside of healthcare, won’t be swift. It’s going to take time to get back to the basics of humans taking care of humans.
Ultimately, humanity is the act of recognizing and appreciating human dignity. That’s what each one of us would want for ourselves as patients or a family member who was a patient.
We are swimming upstream with a downstream current that is the current healthcare system. Fighting against templates that leave us 15-minutes for follow up visits and require 94 clicks in order to document each visit in our electronic health record notes.
Unfortunately we aren’t going to be able to solve that dichotomy today – the disconnect between the current climate and wanting to connect person-to-person – but I leave you with these three ways to increase connectivity with patients.
Feeling you’re missing the element of humanity in healthcare? A hallmark of burnout is that sense of depersonalization. Take this Free Burnout Assessment Quiz to evaluate your risk for burnout.