Providing Consistently Compassionate Healthcare, Circumventing Healthcare Worker Burnout, and How to Advocate for Oneself as a Patient When Things Aren’t Going Quite Right….

This past week, I’m sorry to report that one of my regular patients has been admitted to the hospital, and she has not been treated well. She had surgery, and after her surgery her surgeon and her GI doctor, who were her main advocates, happened to be on vacation. Hospitals have systems in place to continue to provide optimal care for patients when doctors go on vacation, but those systems failed this patient. Her nutrition was delayed at least a day, maybe more, by staff negligence and she went a total of 4 days without anything in her gut. She then developed a bowel obstruction and other complications, which can be caused by the gut not being nourished after a GI surgery.

At the point where she recognized she should have been being fed, she asked many people. She tells me she asked no less than 4 people inquiring about when she would be fed. Her questions were brushed off and she was treated disrespectfully. I contacted the nutrition department of this hospital as her advocate, at which point the issue was immediately addressed.

Unfortunately stories like this are not uncommon (and they can even be a lot worse). Although most healthcare workers are compassionate, loving human beings, there are exceptions to this including those working only to earn a paycheck or maybe someone just having a bad day, and not working at their optimal level. There are many reasons for healthcare worker burnout. Healthcare workers are often pushed hard and overworked, at times underpaid, and so, so much is demanded of all disciplines in healthcare. But that is not unique to our profession. There are so many hardworking people in so many disciplines. The unique quality of being a healthcare worker is that you MUST have compassion to do your job well. It is absolutely a prerequisite. Healthcare workers see people during their vulnerable time of need. We must constantly remind ourselves of that. We have a big responsibility: to care for people, and leave them better off then when they came to us at the outset.

 

If you are a healthcare worker, please remind yourself of these things on a daily basis:

Healthcare is more than just a job, it is about human connection. Honor your patients and provide them the attention, advice, and level of service they need and deserve.

Your patients are depending on you. This is their time of vulnerability. We will all have vulnerable times in our lifetime, including you and I. Provide excellent service and care and expect it in return when it is your time to be cared for.

You have the power to affect change. The patients you serve may not know how to “work the system” but you do – if you see something not going right, contact the right people and advocate for your patient. This is true if you are a doctor, a nurse, a dietitian, a speech therapist, a food service worker, or a member of the housekeeping staff. If your patient tells you something is not going right, notify the right person and make sure they really hear you.

 

If you are a healthcare worker, please care for yourself so that you may continue to provide an optimal level of service to your patient in their time of need:

If you need a day off, take a day off. Okay obviously if your office is short staffed and on short notice, this cannot happen, you just have to rally. But if you feel yourself getting burnt out, being annoyed by your patients, etc. it is time to start thinking and planning for a day or a few days of down time.

Turn to a healthy outlet for stress relief, or cultivate one. Nourish yourself well. I know it’s hard sometimes with so many demands, but try not to skip meals. Take an actual lunch break whenever possible. Run. Go to a group exercise class. Walk your dog. Meditate. Take a warm bath. Read. Relieve stress in some productive way so that you can be your best for yourself, your patients, and your family.

 

If you are a patient and you have a planned hospital stay or surgery, know your rights, and be aware of steps you can take when things are not going as they should:

You have the right to be treated respectfully. Everyone involved in your care is there for you, to help you in your time of need.

You have the right to informed consent. Nothing can be done to you without your informed consent. This includes asking as many questions about what is proposed to be done to you, until you are satisfied that thing is in your best interest.

You have the right to an advocate, especially if you will be or are incapacitated during any point in your hospital stay. Having an advance directive is always a good idea. Designate someone as your decision maker now, and in case of emergency that person will legally have the right to make any decisions you would otherwise make for yourself. Make sure you trust this person fully, and make sure you discuss healthcare preferences with them (i.e., would you ever want to be on a ventilator? Would you ever want to be on a tube feeding long term if there were no chance of meaningful recovery, etc.)

When things are not going right, you ABSOLUTELY have the right to facilitate change. You can do this one of several ways. You can request a new physician be assigned to your case. You can request a new nurse be assigned to your case. The charge nurse, the patient advocate (or ombudsman), or another physician you trust would be excellent people to discuss any problems you are having with staff members with.

 

Deep sigh. The good news is that literally more than most, but in fact the vast majority of people in healthcare are kind, hardworking compassionate people every day. I know. I’ve worked with hundreds of them. But that won’t make a patient who has had a very negative experience, or worse, a poor health outcome due to negligence, feel any better. So always be prepared to advocate for yourself and the best care possible in any healthcare setting.

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