Creating Conditions for Humanity in Hospitals

[This post was first published on The Health Care Blog on 8/25/13.]

Why aren’t people in hospitals more attentive to the needs of patients?

In a recent post, Dr. Ashish Jha raises this issue as he relates his own story of coming to an ED with a very painful dislocated shoulder. Unsurprisingly, prompt treatment of his pain was deferred while staff diligently completed registration, sent him for an xray, and waited for a physician to see him.

On the bike path where Jha took his initial tumble, people went out of their way to respond to his injury with attention and concern. But as he lay moaning on a gurney in the hospital corridors, waiting for an xray and not yet treated for pain, people avoided his eyes and even walked by a little faster.

What gives? Why aren’t people in the hospital more empathetic and attentive? Is this a “wonderful people, bad system” issue?

In reflecting on his experience, Jha remarks that people seem to leave their humanity at the door when they arrive at the hospital for work, and posits that we get desensitized to suffering. He notes that some workers were able to “break out of that trap,” and responded to him more empathetically when he directly solicited their help and attention.

“It is the job of healthcare leaders to create a culture where we retain our humanity despite the constant exposure to patients who are suffering,” writes Jha.

Culture change is necessary but not sufficient

Culture is important. Yet I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit skeptical when I hear of a plan to tackle a problem through culture change. In my own experience, this has consisted of leaders trying to “create culture” by describing to front-line staff what they should be doing, and repeatedly exhorting them to do it. (And maybe giving out gold stars to those who do it.)

This, of course, is never enough. Talking the talk does not mean people start to walk the walk, especially if the walk involves a slog uphill rather than an easier stroll down a path of lesser resistance

If we – whether healthcare leaders or just concerned citizens who want to see healthcare improve – really want healthcare workers to demonstrate more compassion and empathy while on the job, then here is what we need to do:

  1. We should take seriously the task of understanding what might be interfering with this compassion and engagement. This means not only studying workflow, but also the behavioral psychology of individuals as well as groups.
  2. We should then be serious about creating the conditions that would allow regular human beings to reliably produce the desired behaviors.

Why it can be hard to help people in the hospital

What interferes with showing compassion and engagement? In reading Jha’s piece, I reflected on my own hospital days. Here are the obstacles that I remember, and the impact on me.

Difficulty meeting the needs of patients and families. I remember constantly feeling that people needed more from me than I could provide. Sometimes they needed to talk for more time than I felt I had available. Or they needed a service or other form of assistance that I wasn’t sure how to get for them.

Especially frustrating was when patients needed something like pain medication on short notice. I have been that doctor very concerned about a patient’s terrible pain. Unfortunately, I discovered that my power to help was quite limited by hospital logistics and workflow: although I could order pain meds right away, the patient could almost never get it quickly. After all, the pharmacy still had to dispense the medication, and the nurse had to administer it.

If you are a conscientious person who wants to help (which I think most healthcare workers are), it’s very stressful to recognize a person’s need and not be able to address it.

Hence, as a coping mechanism, my guess is that many people working in hospitals adapt by learning to “not see” those needs that they feel they can’t address promptly and properly. (Perhaps we might consider this a form of learned helplessness?)

That ED doc that Jha praises for addressing his shoulder quickly? He sounds like a good guy, but it also helps that he had the skills and ability to do something right then and there.

Frustration with workflows and workplace tools. It’s no secret that hospitals and clinics often present a “high-friction” environment for front-line staff. Back when I worked in the hospital, every day involved coping with inefficient workflows that generated various levels of annoyance. There was redundant paperwork. There were computers requiring multiple sign-ins, or repeated sign-ins. There were tasks that took three steps when they really could’ve been redesigned to take one or two.

Along with the expected hassles, one also had to contend with frequent malfunctions in whatever system you were trying to use. A printer out of paper. A computer that mysteriously can’t be logged into. A shortage of staff in a certain department, such that a routine inquiry ends up taking twice as long as usual.

To be fair to hospitals, designing friction-free workflows for clinical staff poses a huge challenge, given the complexity of the work involved and the diverse needs that hospital administrators need to consider. And the nature of life is such that often things do not work as expected.

Still, it all added up to a fair drain on one’s energy and attention, and made it harder to provide patients and families with attention when they needed help.

Inadequate levels and reserves of energy. Compassionately interfacing with patients takes energy, especially if pain or emotionally intense issues are at hand. If one is worn out by earlier encounters, or by a long workday, it becomes much harder to muster the energy to engage with those who need us.

And of course the energy one can bring on any given day is powerfully influenced by the overall balance of exertion and regeneration that one experiences over weeks and months. Long workdays stacked back-to-back (as experienced by many hospitalists) take their toll. Young children at home, or other significant obligations outside the hospital, can also reduce one’s energy at work.

On the flip side, certain activities help people regenerate and restore their energy. Adequate sleep, exercise, and close relationships with friends and family are sustaining staples that are needed by all. Plus everyone tends to have some favorite soul-nurturing activities that help recharge the batteries.

For physicians in particular, the problem is that residency tends to leave people with little time to recharge. We form our habits as doctors during a time of chronic stress and fatigue.

And even after residency, many physicians end up with chronically intense work-schedules. What effect does this have on their ability to be compassionate and responsive to patients and families?

My own experience has been that when I work long hours, it feels much harder to give people the support they want. I still try to do it but I suspect I do it less well. I also know that when I’m tired I make an extra effort with patients but then have much less patience with other members of the healthcare team. (And then when I come home I’m short-tempered and crabby with husband and kids; not necessarily a problem for hospital and patients but concerning to me.)

    Enabling humans to show humanity

    Cultural expectations within institutions and groups are powerful. We do take our cues from peers and leaders. But it’s hard to follow the cues when surrounded by pervasive stressors and obstacles. In fact, it can be demoralizing to be told to do something when your leaders don’t seem to be making enough of effort to enable this doing.

As healthcare leaders take on the important task of making hospitals more responsive to the needs of patients and families, I hope they’ll consider the following:

  • People don’t like being faced with situations that they can’t fix, or that they feel will be a huge time/energy suck to fix. 
    • Make it easier for them to do the right thing.
    • Recognize when you are asking them to do something that is a big time/energy suck. 
    • Try to give them more time. Realize that they’ll have less energy afterward for efforts that are cognitively or emotionally demanding.
    • Provide communication and empathy training. Without explicit training, people often don’t realize that patients and families appreciate sympathy and attention, even when you can’t solve the exact problem at hand.
  • Frictions in the workplace add up to material stress and depletion of energy.
    • Reducing these frictions can enable workers to be more responsive to the needs of patients (and colleagues).
    • Adapting to changes in the workplace — such a new computer system or workflow — does create a drain on staff’s energy and attention. Ideally, this is temporary but poorly designed changes often create permanent energy drains.
  • Be mindful of the overall energy and stress levels of your workers.
    • Workers who are already experiencing chronic stress and fatigue will have difficulty becoming more attentive to patients’ needs.
      Now, if you told me that healthcare leaders already know all this, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’re in a leadership position, it’s really part of your job to learn about managing human capital.

      The trouble is that for the leaders of a hospital, addressing the obstacles that I experienced in the hospital feels costly to them. It takes time, energy, and money to reduce workplace frictions. And managers are generally very reluctant to reduce a person’s workload in order to free up cognitive and emotional energy so that the worker can then be more responsive to suffering patients, or even adapt to new technology for that matter.

      In principle, these investments in nurturing one’s human capital should pay off down the line: more satisfied patients, less worker absenteeism, better teamwork among colleagues, and possibly even fewer hospital errors and better health outcomes among patients and staff.

      Will healthcare leaders find a way to walk their own uphill path, and really make it possible for their front-line staff to do better work? I hope so.


    1. I like your post. I'd read Jha's story, and was similarly struck by it. After all, if those of us "in the know" can't get suitable help, heaven forbid what happens to those less empowered.

      Your ideas are on the mark–no doubt removing drains of positive energy and taking the time and space to rejuvenate would go a long way toward fixing what collectively ails us.

      I find working for this change challenging on multiple fronts, however. You address it to some degree, but I think the reality of hospital admin. is starker:

      Services are arranged entirely around the finances. Whether in the ER or the office, 'enrollment' or 'insurance verification' are the very first step. It sets the tone–and starts the "cash register flowing" for goods and services accounted for on a piecemeal basis.

      Look at Jha–here's someone who was arguably in major distress, and yet rather than triage and attend to him quickly, he was still made to prove his coverage. Pretty doggone inhumane.

      We've worked shifts in the ER. You can't buck 'the system.' Even when you try to work harder or faster, you quickly realize it just means more patients coming. Having the administrative barriers in place smooths out the flow, and arguably puts everyone, rich and poor alike, in the same algorithmic pathway. That may even have some social equity merit. Let's treat everyone the same, right?

      Without a dramatic shift in health care accounting, nursing practice, and managerial philosophy, I'm doubtful that we'll be able to change practice enough to make the whole process more human–unless enough humanists stay involved to reach a critical mass of leadership and show that changes along these lines can both be made and success can be maintained/achieved.

      • Thanks for posting this thoughtful comment.

        You are definitely hitting the nail on the head re financial imperatives.

        How can we create the dramatic shifts that are required? That is one of many questions we must try to answer…

    2. I suspect it will take a new generation of hospital/insurer/health enterprise leadership that is somehow able to retain favor in human interest above financial gain.

      even the best of us get co-opted in leadership positions–think of the jobs you provide, the community benefit. you have a board to answer to–even for a non-profit. financial pressure is insidious, and permeates so much of what we do.

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