Viewpoint: When healthcare loses the most

We lose a lot when dehumanization in healthcare occurs in any direction. 

The past two years have been a test for people, an expedited trial as we all learned more about ourselves — our strengths, limits, fears and heartstrings. 

There are as many findings and results from this big experiment as there are people, but at least one seems quite universal: the power of kindness. Before you stop reading, let me say: I know. Reading about kindness can be as captivating as reading nutrition facts. Most of us learn of its importance at a young age and strive to embody it daily. With this in mind, I'll spare you "the why." 

Instead what I've noticed recently is the temptation to measure kindness, to allot this much here or this much there, and to treat it as a zero-sum game in which its flow to one side takes away from the other. 

Healthcare needs more kindness. From patient to provider, from provider to patient, from peer to peer. The past two years have brought an enormous amount of attention toward the flow of kindness and to whom it is owed. In the year ahead, what if we stop analyzing who needs to bring more kindness and instead ensure each of us is creating it ourselves?

There's no quid pro quo when it comes to extending compassion and decency to sick people and those who care for them. Still, I worry we are veering alarmingly close to adopting this framework. Throughout the pandemic, hospitals and health systems have elevated pleas for kindness toward healthcare workers, urging patients to treat their providers with respect. 

Then, when healthcare workers violate patient trust, resentment and mistrust naturally builds. When events like that out of Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta then come to light — a group of nurses creating a TikTok on what they dislike about labor and delivery patients and families — I'd understand if patients who pass by hospital signs urging kindness feel wary. 

Same goes the other way, for clinicians and staff who endure mistreatment from patients while working through the thankless tasks. How easy it must be in those interactions to feel cheated and underappreciated. These disappointing exchanges may invite healthcare workers to believe disrespect begets disrespect. 

I began writing this column in reaction to the events at Emory, looking to suggest that healthcare workers might be hypocritical by demanding kindness from patients but failing to extend such kindness themselves, whether publicly or privately. I continued with that thought for a while before realizing what a disappointing way it is to look at healthcare, and more importantly, at people. 

Healthcare needs more kindness, period. From every one of us. No one party is going to save the day; no deployment is nearing with the goodwill supply. It's up to each of us to bring it. 

We all lose a lot when dehumanization in healthcare occurs in any direction. Patients can meet their highest of highs and lowest of lows in healthcare. The trust they put forward in hopes of healthier lives deserves fierce protection. So too do our healthcare workers, most of whom will tell you the reason they went into medicine is to help people. This is an extraordinary commitment worth saving. 


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