Bring the Humanity Back to Healthcare

Bring the Humanity Back to Healthcare
| by Andrea Gill

«Objectification of people is the heritage of the professionalization of helping relationships. […] When we treat others as objects, even for benevolent reasons, we rob them of their humanity. […] Benevolence without respect is dehumanizing because it reduces the other person to an object.”

— David Benner, Sacred Companions


I resonated with these wise words from David Benner in Sacred Companions. I entered the healthcare profession, as many do, to find kinship with the suffering, and provide service to those in need, compelled by love. Even with the best intentions, after years at the bedside, I found myself snapping at patients, and disregarding their preferences. Before becoming a nurse, I was a minister. I was alarmed at who I had become and went home every day thankful that my loved ones hadn't seen the way I had acted towards patients. I was embarrased and ashamed. I know this reality all too well on the patient side as well, having overcome a cancer diagosis, and later years of chronic health issues. (Woman's chronic pain...thats a story for another time!) The dehumanization of the patient is not one person’s fault! It is not the nurse’s fault, or the doctor’s, but the way the system has coalesced over time to be a machine dedicated to efficiency and repeatable and predictable outcomes.

As someone who studied quality improvement, and led these initiatives myself in the hospital setting, I am empathic to and understand the need for our checklist-based system. These systems often prevent medical errors and put safety first.

However, I cannot help but dream for more, for myself as provider, and especially for the patient. I dream of the patient not being a bag of medical diagnoses, but a human being with preferences and dislikes, a story, a family. I wish to know who they are, what’s important to them, what they want out of the care, how they want there last time to be like, and everything in between. In the race to hang the next drip, these conversations get left in the dust. It’s the difference between an urgent task and an important task. These human issues lack the urgency to push them through to boardroom decision making tables.

There are many interventions we can bring to our healthcare system to rehumanize our patients, and the patient experience (and ourselves in the process) such as increased staffing levels, a dedicated palliative care team, a chaplain available 24/7, a robust volunteer companion program and more. But until these changes come to fruition, what we have in the meantime is each other to stand beside our friends and family, to voice their needs, preferences, and desires, to hold the big picture up to anyone who passes by who will listen and to restore dignity in the guaranteed suffering of the human experience.