Not since I was a teenager having my wisdom teeth surgically removed with the aid of that luscious nitrous oxide laughing gas have I floated home from a dental appointment feeling so exhilarated. Because yesterday, I took a personal stand against rudeness and disrespect in the delivery of my own health care.
Regular readers here will already know how surviving a heart attack (plus, I suspect, my advancing progress towards Cranky Old Lady Land) have made me increasingly ticked off by health care providers who:
- treat us as if we are simply a piece of meat on a slab – and worse, an invisible piece of meat on a slab
- forget that we are far more than just the 10 o’clock procedure in their daytimers
- disregard the fact that there is an actual real live human being attached to the body part they happen to be working on
My recent mission in life seems to be to put the brakes on this kind of pervasively rude behaviour, one health care provider at a time.
Back to my dental appointment: the pleasant dental hygienist was well into our annual teeth cleaning appointment, using a fancy little instrument of torture called a Cavitron® scaler and air polisher. With this, the patient endures the high-pitched scream of this cleaning tool while having icy cold water sprayed not only inside the mouth but also, sporadically, all over the face, while a vacuum suction wand attempts in vain to collect the icy cold water before it chokes said patient.
While dutifully scraping, spraying and suctioning, my hygienist was also engaged in a conversation with her co-worker in the next-door cubicle. She hollered a comment over the half-wall separating our cubbies, and her co-worker responded by yelling back. Apparently, they wanted to chat about a recent dental meeting – while I was lying there being scraped, sprayed and suctioned.
“Was Joyce there?” one yelled.
“No, but you know who WAS there?” called out the other.
This was the level of their earth-shatteringly urgent collegial conversation going on over my head.
Now, I know I should be used to being ignored like this, and I honestly don’t know why this particular behaviour bothered me so much on this particular day.
But after a few minutes of listening to them while feeling increasingly annoyed, I raised my right hand in the air, forcing the hygienist to remove her fingers and the Cavitron® from my mouth. I then looked up directly into her face, and I calmly asked her:
“Would you like to go finish your conversation with your friend in the other room? Because while you’re working on my procedure, I would prefer that you focused on me instead of on her.”
Her immediate reaction was defensive, explaining weusuallydon’tdothis butwehaven’tseeneachotherinalongtime…. While she rattled on like this with her rapid-fire defense, I was sorely tempted to again thrust my hand skyward (but this time, right upside her head). I honestly felt like interrupting her with:
“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!
“I DON’T CARE!
“I HAVE HAD ENOUGH, AND I’M SICK AND TIRED OF PUTTING UP WITH RUDENESS!”
But before I had a chance to even go there, she suddenly stopped cold in mid-defense, took a deep breath, and quietly said these magical words to me:
“You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry about that.”
I felt like high-fiving her!
Being ignored, of course, doesn’t happen only in dental offices (although I have frequently observed that some dentists tend to carry on inane over-our-heads conversations with their dental assistants about what they watched on TV last night). Note to all dentists and their staff: if you’re going to act as if your patient is not even alive, at least offer us a set of headphones and our choice of interesting music so we won’t have to lie there focused on how you are ignoring us.
The same dismissive behaviour happens in retail checkout lines when the attention of the clerks on duty is intensely focused on their he-said-she-said gossip without pausing to acknowledge the existence of the living, breathing customers in front of them whose sole purpose seems to be to interrupt their important conversation.
And how many of us heart patients have been laid out flat, frightened and vulnerable on a hospital gurney while the staff who are purportedly taking care of us are talking over our bodies to each other? They chat about the weather, about their kids, about their upcoming weekend plans AS IF WE WERE ALREADY DEAD.
How many of us have had to undergo complex diagnostic procedures that the technologists did not bother to clearly explain to us in advance?
How many of us have encountered health care providers who enter the room and do not bother to introduce themselves to us? (For more on the importance of health care professionals introducing themselves to patients, visit #HelloMyNameIs, a U.K. campaign launched by physician-turned-terminal cancer patient Kate Granger).* See also my “Top 10 Tips on How To Treat Your Patient” in An Open Letter to All Hospital Staff
If we are very, very lucky, we might get a care provider who actually makes eye contact or even touches our shoulder reassuringly. Health care professionals like this can make a frightening or uncomfortable patient experience a little less so. If we are lucky . . .
And even though today’s procedure might be absolutely routine to those who are providing it, there is nothing routine about any clinical procedure when you are the one on the receiving end.
In Dr. Don Berwick‘s wonderful essay(1) called “What ‘Patient-Centered’ Should Mean: Confessions Of An Extremist” in Health Affairs, he describes the lively debate that occurred on the Institutes of Medicine panel, defining what’s known as Patient-Centered Care. He adds these three parameters for patient centeredness:
- The needs of the patient come first (a pervasive slogan at Mayo Clinic, where I saw this posted on virtually every wall).
- Nothing about me without me (from Diane Plamping, a U.K. health care organizational sociologist)
- Every patient is the only patient (sign at the entryway to the Harvard Community Health Plan Hospital in Boston)
Dr. Berwick warns his fellow doctors:
“Ask patients today what they dislike about health care, and they will mention distance, helplessness, discontinuity, a feeling of anonymity – too frequently properties of the fragmented institutions in which modern professionals work and train. (We need) a reconnection of the feelings of health care professionals with their work. Violence is done when that connection is sundered by institutional norms and training.
“Threats to the health of the professions come far more from denying our basic instincts to help than from embracing them. What undergirds authentic patient-centeredness are the very same words we use when we first came to the patient’s side: “How can I help you?”
When the medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine recently published a study(2) called “The Cost of Satisfaction: A National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality”, many a physician cheered – particularly docs who are feeling alarmed by the growing popularity of the empowered patient movement, or by their own poor Rate Your Doctor scores online.
This study suggests that the higher patients rated their medical care, the worse their actual health outcomes. Patients who report being highly satisfied with their doctors, for example, may not always be getting the best care and, surprisingly, are about 26% more likely to die than people who feel less satisfied with their physicians.
I’m not aiming to address here the inherent problems of doctors feeling pressured to cave in to patients’ unreasonable demands for unnecessary tests or treatments (an action that many patients will rate as more satisfactory than if the doc had justifiably refused the test/treatment they want). I’ve previously written at length about this serious issue here, here and here.
As award-winning health journalist Naomi Freundlich wrote on Reforming Health:
“Patients have been pretty clear about what they consider a satisfying experience. They didn’t want to wait too long in the waiting room; they wanted doctors and nurses to treat them kindly and with respect; they wanted prompt symptom relief; and they didn’t want to be discharged too soon or before they felt their medical problems were fully addressed.
“Often, patients indicated on surveys that they were dissatisfied with care when they felt slighted or ignored.”
My hope is that every patient could feel comfortable simply raising one hand in the air – or, as patient advocate Trisha Torrey puts it – “channelling our inner Aretha Franklin” – in the face of being ignored by those who are supposed to be treating us with respect.
If we aren’t able or willing to do this, we are saying that the pervasive lack of common courtesy in health care is acceptable to us.
And we all know that it is not.
© 2012 Carolyn Thomas Heart Sisters
* Dr. Kate Granger died on July 23, 2016. The physician who told her that her cancer had spread did not introduce himself, and did not make eye contact with her. She was so disturbed by his behaviour that she launched her #HelloMyNameIs campaign to encourage all health care staff to introduce themselves to their patients. RIP, Dr. Kate.
- The Lost Art of Common Courtesy in Medicine
- Patient Privacy, Modesty, and Staff Burnout
- An Open Letter to All Hospital Staff
- “Gigi”: An E.R. Doc’s Warning to his Residents
- If Disney Ran Your Hospital: What Would Mickey and Minnie Do?
- “Distracted Doctoring” – Updating Your Facebook Status in the O.R
- Are You a ‘Disease Seeker’ or a ‘Health Seeker’?
- Catastrophizing: Why We Feel Sicker Than We Actually Are
- When Patients Demand Treatments that Don’t Work
- Why Doctors Say YES When They Mean No
1. Don Berwick, MD “What ‘Patient-Centered’ Should Mean: Confessions Of An Extremist”, Health Affairs. July/August 2009 vol. 28 no. 4 w555-w565
2. Joshua J. Fenton, MD, MPH; Anthony F. Jerant, MD; Klea D Bertakis, MD, MPH; Peter Franks, MD. The Cost of Satisfaction: A National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality” Arch Intern Med. Published online February 13, 2012. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.1662