We’re all human beings, of course. But after an encounter with the health care industry, it’s easy to feel less like a human being and more like a cog in the vast Big Health machine.
Health care settings often feel and function like factories. The patient is the product, proceeding through an assembly line of receptionists, technical assistants, providers, and labs. The system is demoralizing and dehumanizing, not just to patients, but also to the providers and others who work within it.
When we’re on the receiving end of care — patients and families — there’s a lot we can’t control. But there are actions we can take to improve our experience, and it’s our responsibility to do all we can to make our health care experience as positive as possible.
It’s our responsibility to seek out care that’s not just technically proficient, but warm and kind.
It’s our responsibility to shine the light of our humanity, even in the most factory-like settings — to attempt to make a human connection with everyone we encounter. Even if the person who takes your blood pressure fails to introduce herself, acts like a robot, and treats you like a robot too, you don’t have to accept the part of a robot. You can make an effort to break through and connect. You may fail to awaken the other person’s humanity, but you will have awakened yours in the attempt.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find a great provider who values the human connection, one who knows that bringing personality and humor into care benefits everyone.
I recently accompanied a family member to a visit with such a provider. This doctor has a background as a Shakespearian actor, and delivers lines like “Let’s take a look at your ankle” or “I’d like you to have a blood test” with theatrical flair.
Here are the hand washing instructions in his office bathroom.
Most of the time, our doctors don’t lighten things up this way, so it’s up to us as patients to bring some humanity and humor into our health care encounters.
When my dad was in the hospital recovering from surgery (for colon cancer a few years ago; he’s cancer free and doing great), his eyes were dry and painful. A resident came to the room with equipment to check for scratches on the surface of his eyes: a black light and special eye drops. With the drops in the black light, he looked like an alien in a B movie.
Yes, he’d just had surgery for cancer. Yes, there were a lot of other places we might have preferred to be. But we were looking for lightness and fun wherever we could find it and we laughed ourselves silly. Because we gave her permission to find the fun in it, the resident laughed right along with us.
Kegel Queen member “Bea” (name changed for privacy) and a friend created a playlist for their respective colonoscopies. “Working in the Coal Mine,” “l May Never Pass This Way Again,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” and others. For after the procedure, “We Are the Champions,” and Fred Rogers’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” “Takes the drama out of the equation,” Bea says.
To prepare for his colonoscopy, my friend Mark, a perpetual joker, got a Sharpie and a mirror and, somehow managed to write “PLEASE BE GENTLE” on his cheeks. He wasn’t awake to enjoy the team’s reactions when they uncovered his derriere, but I bet he made everyone’s day a lot more interesting.
To bring more humanity into your care, you don’t have to do something crazy like writing a secret message to your colonoscopy team. It could be as simple as this: look a receptionist in the eye and really mean it when you say, “How are you?”
What can you do to make your next health care encounter more human?