At work recently I felt like a broken record. “What’s their name?” I said again and again with increasing frustration as I received calls about patients who were referred to as “bed 3,” “side room 1,” and “bed 9.”
Of course, at times it is convenient and even desirable to omit a patient’s name in a conversation. It was suggested on Twitter that it may be better to overhear what ‘bed 9’ needs rather than ‘John Doe is ready for his haemorrhoidectomy,’ and in this case I agree! My worry is that in most cases there is no explicit intent to maintain confidentiality. Instead the convenience of referring to people by their bed number slips into routine communication. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. I worry that this is not merely disrespectful, but that it contributes to the dehumanising experience of being a patient, and negatively impacts on the doctor-patient relationship.
There are many factors that contribute to dehumanisation in hospitals. It is often not the fault of individuals, and I would certainly not suggest any of the nurses I work with are uncaring. Instead the environment and structures inherent in the way we work create an “us and them” divide where healthcare workers and patients are in different tribes. This extends to factors as simple as the clothes we wear, an example of “deindividuation.” I am always amazed by the dramatic transformation when a patient puts on their own clothes as they get ready to leave hospital, having previously only worn a generic hospital gown. They miraculously turn into a “person” rather than a “patient.”
A recent paper by Haque and Waytz “Dehumanisation in medicine: causes, solutions and functions” explores this idea further, identifying a number of contributing factors, considering simple solutions, and also exploring examples of necessary and unnecessary dehumanisation. An example of necessary dehumanisation is that it reduces physician burnout: if I felt the same intensity of empathy for every patient undergoing a blood test as a typical non-healthcare worker would, I would be overwhelmed and unable to do my job. But there are many examples of unnecessary dehumanisation that we should identify, expose and address to ensure they do not affect how we think of, and care for, our patients.
Although as individuals we may aspire to a partnership model with our patients, our structures rarely facilitate this, and there is a danger that we see patients not as individuals but as tasks to be ticked off. I am much less personally interested that “bed 9 needs a cannula,” than I am that “Eve’s cannula has tissued again and she really needs her iv fluids.” And when I think about constructing a management plan, I am much less likely to take the time to explain my clinical reasoning and involve the patient in decision making if I think of him as “the PE in bed 3″ rather than “Bob, the lovely history teacher who has a PE.”
If and when I become a patient I want my medical team to treat my as an individual, consider my personal context and experience of illness, and integrate this into their decision-making process. I do not want to be referred to as “bed 2.” I realise that as a Medical Reg I would embody ‘the nightmare patient’, but something approaching this true partnership model should be what we aspire to for every patient, not just those (like me) who explicitly demand it. Many things need to change to achieve this ideal including; better data sharing with, and ownership by patients; better public and patient education allowing valuable discussion about trial data and the value and limits of evidence-based medicine; and a dramatic change in our IT structures such that they enhance rather than impede communication across arbitrary boundaries of primary, secondary and tertiary care.
We should work to achieve system changes, but they will take time to implement. We can take immediate personal responsibility for our own actions and our own role in dehumanisation in healthcare.
A statement in Haque and Waytz’ paper that particularly hit home was:
“Medical education and training should also incorporate practices that allow physicians to emphasize the common humanity they share with their patients, specifically their shared mortality; illness narratives; and vulnerability to disability, suffering, personal loss, and other forms of uncertainty”
I am a passionate advocate for a strong educational focus on our common humanity, and for the power in sharing personal narratives, thoughts and uncertainties as professionals with the aim of demystifying and disempowering the role of “the health professional.” I suppose that is one aspect of what this blog has tried to achieve. By sharing my personal experiences and exposing my doubts and flaws I hope to show the human side of my role as a doctor.
I have been inspired by NHS Change Day to consider what small changes I can make in my own practice that will improve the lives of my patients. I will be pledging to re-humanise my personal practice of medicine, by always using patients names as a constant reminder of their individuality. I hope that hearing “bed 9 wants to see you” will become the exception rather than the rule. You can make this happen. Pledge with me.