I had a visceral – and negative – reaction the moment I read the Facebook post.
It was by a new college graduate with a degree in nursing who was working in an acute care hospital. She recounted the story of how a patient had become angry with her that day because he had to wait to get her attention. Her response: “But did you die?”
In other words, waiting to get a nurse’s attention in a hospital is not something one should complain about – there are other people here with much more immediate concerns. I was shocked. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone so young and new to the field had become so jaded so quickly.
Those thoughts were quickly followed with a level of understanding. I remembered numerous experiences as a nurse myself where I had to prioritize the demands made on me by multiple patients, keeping life and death situations in mind as I chose to whom I should respond. I’m sure I sometimes angered patients and their loved ones, too.
Healthcare is different
It’s hard to think of many other industries in which we treat our customers this way. And yet it’s also hard to think of many other industries in which lives really do hang in the balance on a moment-to-moment basis.
In other industries, when we feel mistreated, we take our business elsewhere. It’s not so easy in healthcare, particularly in acute situations like hospital stays and emergency visits.
And yet, I think the difficulties come down to more than just prioritization. Although the “sharing of power” is an overarching goal of modern patient-centered healthcare, most patients are uncomfortable challenging healthcare professionals, something which can also contribute. When you are in the business of saving lives, it’s easy to view and behave as if complaints over small things are trivial.
Furthermore, what responsibility does the employer have to create a culture in which health care professionals are appropriately supported to be responsive to patients? Are these individuals totally overwhelmed with work and experiencing burnout? Do they feel cared for? Are they even aware of the frustration that patients may feel when they are treated unprofessionally?
Mixed emotions and some suggestions
As I considered that Facebook post I thought about how best to counsel this young woman. I also wondered how I could counsel my clients about what to do when faced with these types of circumstances.
This topic is fraught with conflicting views, mixed emotions, and misunderstanding. It’s complicated to sort out. I don’t have all the answers but I do have some suggestions:
For Healthcare Professionals:
- Practice empathy. Appreciate that the person standing in front of you may have no idea about your competing priorities. They are managing an issue, whether for themselves or a loved one, and may have feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion. Try to acknowledge that, listen and try to set realistic expectations of when you can help. Above all, treat them with respect and kindness. This can go a long way in reassuring a patient or loved one, and de-escalating an experience.
- Deal with burnout. If you feel you may be experiencing this common phenomenon, take action. Talk with your manager and do what is necessary to take care of yourself. Articles included below address the issue of burnout among physicians and professional caregivers.
- Evaluate the environment. If you are a manager, assess the environment in which your teams work. Are all team members adequately supported to do the best job they can? If not, how can you improve the work environment?
- Reduce barriers, both physical and virtual. Create receptionist desks that exclude barriers and promote a welcoming atmosphere. If you are a busy professional behind that desk, look up, smile, and indicate you will be right with whoever is waiting for your attention.
- Model the Way. Take on the responsibility, as a professional, to create and encourage a culture of helpfulness.
- Recognize your emotions. It’s understandable that you may be experiencing anxiety and fear as you make requests of healthcare professionals. Acknowledge this and even share your feelings with the person to whom you are making the request.
- Be respectful. Approach healthcare professionals with respect and politeness, positioning them as the professionals with the skills and experience you need, and from whom you seek guidance and education. Express your gratitude when someone assists you.
- Lead with curiosity. When you encounter unprofessional behavior, be curious and politely assertive: “What I understand about our encounter is that you are extremely busy and that my circumstance may not be a priority to you, is that true? How can we reconcile my need with your commitments to others?” Or, “Is there something we can do to work together to better meet my needs or that of my loved one?”
We need each other
Healthcare environments are different from other customer experiences. They are fraught with uncertainty – on the part of both providers and patients (and their loved ones).
As a healthcare provider, it is my hope that this newsletter will encourage you to reflect on your behavior towards patients, on the culture of the environments in which you work, and on the degree of support you seek and receive as a respected professional.
As a patient or advocate, it’s important to remain polite, prepared and engaged. In the event we run into a circumstance that is less than professional, being curious rather than accusatory will often facilitate our needs being met.
After all, we are a team and we need each other.