Standards of Respect: Treating our Patients with Dignity and Respect

I think most of us go into the health care field because we care about people. But what sometimes happens to clinicians in direct patient care is that we get so involved with the “work” of caring for patients that we become immune to their emotions. We may lose our sense of compassion and empathy.

I was recently reminded of this when reading a New England Journal of Medicine article by Rana L.A. Awdish, MD, from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Here is a link to the article. Her story is heartbreaking, but worth the 10-minute read.

She writes about her experience as a patient in her own hospital battling to stay alive after nearly bleeding to death when a small tumor in her liver ruptured. She was seven months pregnant and ended up losing the baby. Her recovery was long and difficult, but made even more challenging when she experienced uncoordinated care, disrespectful treatment and “occasionally an apparently complete absence of empathy.” At one point, she tells the story of receiving a bill for the attempted resuscitation of her child, which of course was not successful, but was a painful (and cold) reminder of that traumatic experience.

Dr. Awdish was dismayed that physicians and employees at her own hospital could treat her in ways that felt disrespectful, which meant that they treated other patients in the same manner. It spurred her on to speak up about the experience and convince hospital leaders to make significant changes to “create a culture of caring.”

It made me reflect on our own culture shift with our Standards of Respect. In our first year of embracing the standards, going through the workshop and learning about ways to improve our behaviors, I think we mostly considered them as guidelines in how we treat each other as caregivers. But we shouldn’t forget that we should be treating our patients with the same standards.

  • Are we acknowledging patients when they have questions, are scared or need help?
  • Are we truly listening to what our patients are saying when they are describing pain or discussing the issues they face?
  • Are we communicating clearly in language they can understand (not our medical speak) and communicating with empathy?
  • Are we responsive to their needs and addressing what they need in their timeframe and not ours?
  • Are we working together with our colleagues to be team players to support our patients?
  • Are we kind to our patients – asking them how they are doing, smiling, showing compassion?

I acknowledge that in my own practice in the Emergency Department, it isn’t always easy to slow down in a chaotic, stressful environment to make sure I’m treating my patients in these ways. But that’s what we all must do. Our patients deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.

As we continue our journey together to be better at meeting the Standards of Respect, I hope we all can remember to practice what we preach and show our patients that UMass Memorial Health Care is a place of healing, compassion and caring.



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