two steps backwards

See when it starts to fall apart
Man, it really falls apart – Tragically Hip

I am watching across Canada as the patient and family engagement movement in hospital settings is taking two steps backwards.  Councils are being disbanded, patient and family staff members (whether they are paid or unpaid) are resigning or being forced out of positions and are being replaced with clinicians.

There is a real fragility that underlies the patient engagement movement.  If patients and families behave themselves, then all is fine.  The minute there is a change in leadership, or something gets hard – like an ethical issue comes up or there is conflict – then BOOM it is over.

It seems as if this movement is so precarious that it can only survive when things are going well.  I define going well as: patients and families mirror their behaviour as close as possible to the behaviour of clinicians and administrators. We must dress like them, talk like them, show up when they tell us to and agree with them. Of course, this erases any hope for diversity and leaves the pool of engaged patients university-educated, articulate and economically well-off, just like the clinicians and administrators themselves.  Patient engagement quickly becomes doomed the moment there’s a sniff of any difference or contention.

There is now a trend throughout the country to replace paid families or patients with health care clinicians in patient engagement roles.  I think this is because:

  • The patient/family engagement movement has become too successful.  We have amassed too much power in the eyes of administrators.  This, ironically, means that engagement has become no longer tokenistic and is finally meaningful.  But to have power you have to take power – and administrators and clinicians simply aren’t willing to give their power away.
  • Paid family members and volunteers are not ‘professionals’ (nor should they be, especially if people are truly looking for diversity) but health care is built on the structure of professionalism.  Having laypeople make decisions in ways that are not tokenistic is just too much for most bureaucrats.
  • The way patients/families are treated at the organizational level mirrors the way they are treated at the point of care.  If there is bad morale and low patient satisfaction at the bedside, then efforts in patient engagement at the organizational level will suffer too (and vice-versa).
  • Many people in senior leader positions do not understand the role of families/patients in organizations.  They might understand the bedside engagement, but the patients in organizations concept is new and poorly understood.
  • Health care culture is also exceedingly slow to change to new ways of doing things.  Patient engagement at the organizational level shakes the status quo. In the Canadian health care system, the status quo does not wish to be shaken.
  • Patients or families in paid positions, on councils or committees do not have a common job description, standard training or defined core competencies. In other words, they are not regulated in any way.  The health care environment is one that demands structure and regulation in order to gain credibility and respect.
  • Patient engagement still butts up against some professions and threatens them (I’m thinking of those clinicians who think it is their job to advocate for patients, not the job of patients and families themselves).

Replacing patient and families with clinicians swings the pendulum back to where we were 15 years ago.  Clinicians are now speaking for us instead of creating environments where we can speak for ourselves.

I’ve laid out the reasons for this problem and will continue to ponder solutions.  I would suggest that patients and families first abandon any tokenistic work right now and search for the rare environments where true engagement is still happening.  Be picky about how you spend your time.

For instance, my colleague Isabel Jordan has found success as a family partner in the area of research.  While some hospitals still have the reputation of being champions in patient and family centred care, meaningful engagement in the hospital world is becoming rare.  If you find a place where you are being treated as a respectful partner, hang onto them tightly.  These scarce places seem to be going the way of the dinosaur.

It is time for patients and families to regroup and rise up again on our own and abandon the shackles of the health care system.  How do we do this?  I think the answer lies outside of the system, not within it.

One thing we can do is to keep telling our stories on our own platforms instead of politely waiting in the wings for conferences, hospitals or universities to extend us invitations to share our experiences.   Use your voice now.  While the system now seems to prefer that professionals take over speaking for us, never let them steal your story.  Your story is the one thing that is yours. Protect it fiercely.  Now is the time for us to take our power back and we will rise up again, one story at a time.   xo.

Edited to add:  I’ve written about both best practice + poor experiences in patient engagement here: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here. 

as we all carry on

Podcast-V2

I’ve managed to wrench myself from social media (although I cannot escape the clutches of Instagram) and this has freed up mental time during my daily walks.  If I’m in a beautiful setting, I walk listening to nothing – only the rustle of the leaves and the chirping of the spring birds.  If I’m relegated to strolling along an ugly urban area, podcasts keep me company.

White Coat, Black Art on CBC with Dr. Brian Goldman is in my podcast feed.  I was thrilled last week to hear my friend and colleague Isabel Jordan interviewed for an episode about PTSD in hospital settings.  She was clear and eloquent about the PTSD that has haunted her since her son’s PICU admission years ago.  This episode covers a lot of important ground: the painful procedures inflicted on patients; the lack of pain management techniques used by hospital staff; the need for mental health support for all family members who bear witness to traumatic hospital situations; and the associated lack of public mental health services in Canada. Isabel is especially poignant in her description of how her rare disease community has helped to heal her.

 Life isn’t just about being patched up.  It’s carrying on afterwards.
                                                                                                         – Isabel Jordan

I truly believe some of the trauma that happens in the hospital could be avoided with a more empathetic attitude.  I, too, have held down my young son with a disability while he was getting blood drawn. I wince at this memory, which surely has been etched deeply in his head.  It does not have to be this way.  Discovering EMLA, a numbing cream that I apply before his blood draw, was revolutionary to his experience.  Another mom told me about numbing creams  – not one health professional has mentioned it to me – ever – in the past 15 years.  (Check out the fabulous It Doesn’t Have to Hurt website for tips on pain management for children).  Clinicians, ask yourself:  Does it always have to hurt?

Us adults experience pain and trauma in the hospital too.  I have written about my experiences with health care on this blog and in a recent guest editorial with the Journal of Family Nursing.  The Affronts to My Human Body essay outlines my accumulations of scars throughout the years and during my recent treatment for breast cancer.

I know many hospital procedures are painful and this is sometimes unavoidable.  But I wonder how much pain is avoidable with a more compassionate approach.  The podcast Everything Happens’ last episode called Can You Hear Me Now talks about empathy in health care.  It offers a brilliant interview with Alan Alda and Kate Bowler.  There’s too much good stuff here to quote.  Just listen to the episode, especially if you work in health care.

Alan talks about connection, plain language and the curse of knowledge in medicine.  If I didn’t have a crush on him when I was a teenager watching Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H episodes, I certainly do now.

At the end of the podcast, Alan turns the table and interviews Kate.  He asks her why she wrote her book and why she does this podcast.  She answers:

What is it like to live after you give up on some of your most deeply cherished lies, like everything is going to work out.  Are there still true and beautiful things that we can still learn in the dark?

To me, this echoes Isabel’s sentiment about carrying on after the trauma and through the pain.  Cheers to those who give voice to the stories that happen in the dark – through being brave enough to be interviewed, or by hosting podcasts or writing or just simply by being a listening presence and not turning away from the pain.  I think both sharing and listening to stories helps us all, as Ram Dass says, to keep walking each other home.  xo.

Unrest, the Film

As I lay in my own bed watching the film Unrest, it struck me as incredibly unfair that scores of patients (85% of patients are women), who have Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) have to fight for understanding from the world every day. I am a woman healing from breast cancer, a kind of cancer that’s suffered from the exact opposite problem than ME – a pink onslaught of awareness that is teetering on overexposure.

I never had anybody question my symptoms. When I presented to my family physician with a lump in my left breast, the slow cogs of the health care machine began to move to put me on the treadmill to diagnosis. Once diagnosed, I was sitting at a surgeon’s office one week later and under the knife two weeks after that. Radiation came two months later and that was that (except for my struggle with my mental health collateral damage).

As Jennifer Brea so brilliantly illustrates in her film, ME has no such diagnostic machine. Early in the film, her husband Omar Wasow wisely advises Jennifer as they are on their way to the Emergency Department:

If you say too little, they can’t help you.
If you say too much, they think you are a mental patient.

What he says is true. Presenting at the hospital is tricky business. I’d add, there should be nothing wrong with being a mental patient, but of course there is. There’s plenty of stigma and disbelief that comes with mental or emotional symptoms. That should not be so, but it is. ME is not ‘just in your head’ but what if something else was? Care and compassion should not be dismissed simply because there’s been no found biological cause.

But of course I’m being naïve. Patients, and dare I say, women, are dismissed all the time. Even in breast cancer, common as it may be, women are, encouraged to deny the realities of their own body, as the great Audre Lorde says. Our side effects are scoffed at and dismissed, we are told we are lucky that we aren’t dead and to be quiet and be positive. There’s great pressure on those who have had cancer to ‘get back to normal’ and even worse, to be ‘better than ever!’ Nothing ever goes back to normal after a glimpse into death. But many in our families and in health care are uncomfortable with any narrative other than the ‘I’m cured!’ heroic story. This is not our reality.

There are many remarkable elements in Jennifer Brea’s Unrest film. Jennifer made the film from her bed. This makes me pause and wonder what able-bodied me has accomplished lately. She tells not only her story, but the story of other people around the world with ME too. This is not a story of redemption – there is no happy ever after. This is real life. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable and for that I applaud loudly. It is tough to put yourself out there, but it is absolutely necessary too. You witness her pain, her struggle and ultimately, the love of her husband too. Like Rana Awdish’s In Shock book, Unrest is a love story too. It is a story about caregiving administered with deep affection.  At one point her husband Omar tells Jennifer, you bring joy to my life every day.  This is a tender insight into what most people don’t understand about caregiving, as I say about caring for my son with Down syndrome – it is done for love.

My friend and former colleague Kathy Reid works in a pain clinic. She told me the first thing that she tells new patients is I believe you. So many times their pain has been scoffed at or minimized.

If people arrive at your doorstep in pain – any kind of pain – emotional, physical, mental, spiritual – do not dismiss them. Do not turn away. It is the job of the healer first to listen and then to believe.

To find out more about ME, check out the Tools section on the Unrest website. Us patients need to stick together – breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer, other cancers, ME, other chronic diseases. It doesn’t matter. The only way change is going to happen is if we pause in the fierce war to compete for resources to lift each other up.

I’ll end with quoting the entirety of Audre Lorde’s famous words from The Cancer Journals, dedicated to Jennifer Brea:

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I have made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit in a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.

In Shock, the book

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I read Rana Awdish’s book In Shock quickly and greedily over the span of three days. In books I tend to mark up pages with passages I want to revisit.  Poor In Shock is completely dog-eared – pages turned inward every second or third page.  This is the sign of a good story.  In the grand tradition of physician writers Oliver Sacks and Paul Kalanithi, Rana Awdish has a rare talent for both science and writing.

It would be easy to describe this book as a medical memoir, but it is much more than that – it is a book of loss and grief over the death of a child. It champions quality improvement and compassionate care. In Shock is a love story too.

Dr. Awdish vividly recounts her time spent as a patient in the ICU with a sudden critical illness and contrasts it with her experience in the same ICU as a critical care physician.  This unfortunate coincidence allows for insights from both sides of the bed as both a patient and doctor.

I’m all about the feelings all the time, so I appreciated Dr. Awdish’s skill at recounting how it feels to be a patient.  She doesn’t white-wash the horrors inflicted in the hospital. She also offers practical advice to health professionals about using thoughtful communication techniques to avoid emotional harm.  She emphasizes how as a patient, she was much more than ‘abdominal pain and fetal demise.’   She reminds clinicians how much patients can hear from their beds, even in critical care.  I wince at her recollection of overhearing a doctor say in the ICU that ‘she’s trying to die on us.

The author serves up great insight into the makings of a physician and training programs that train compassion out of the most earnest of students.  I believe the hope for change lies in medical education (and all health professional education), but alas, the workings of that education mirrors the dysfunction of the health system.  The two are intertwined.  I can only hope that sharing patient stories from both health professionals and lay-patients will help.

This book reminded me why I was a failed student nurse – I could not figure out how to detach myself from patients.  Training to mold students into a ‘cooly distant authority’ happens in all health faculties, including nursing.  Dr. Awdish describes her experience as a medical student in the pediatric ICU:

“I found it utterly impossible to be detached or reserved in that unit.”  

Later, she was chastised by a supervising physician for expressing sadness for the death of a child, harshly learning, “…if we felt our feelings, we would kill the people we were supposed to help protect.”

My shock from In Shock was at the effort physicians make suppress to emotion, often at their own personal cost.  My best experiences with physicians have been those when doctors dared show they were human – not in a check-box way – but in an authentic, vulnerable way.  There are those rebels out there, but they are hard to find.  The training and health systems seem determined to squash them down.  I admire these kind champions even more now for swimming against the tide.

All is not lost and Rana does give us hope. She reminds us that there is “reciprocity in empathy.”  She shares positive experiences, too, including one with a Nurse Practitioner who demonstrates compassion for the death of her baby girl.  She explains how health professionals can “humbly witness suffering and offer support.”

Embedded in her harrowing story of experiencing a life-threatening event there is also an important love story about Rana’s relationship with her husband Randy.

“My bruised and discolored body was proof to him of what I had endured to stay with him,” she recounts.  I thought of my own husband and how both the author and I are graced with partners who granted us unconditional love during our health crises.  This deep, unwavering support can be healing too.

Dr. Rana Awdish’s In Shock covers a great amount of ground: shock at suddenly becoming gravely ill, losing her beloved baby girl and grieving for her previously healthy body.  There’s shock at how it feels to be a patient, shock at the resistance to her attempts to change the rigid medical culture to be more patient centred.

It is a dramatic and engaging read. I was spell bound until the very last page.  I might be predisposed to like this book as the mother of a son with a disability and now as a cancer patient. But this is a book for anybody who is a health professional or who has ever been – or might be – a patient (and that’s all of us).

I am heartened to have connected with Rana on Twitter and to discover she has a platform to preach for improved health communication as a speaker, writer and the Medical Director of Care Experience.  While it frustrates me that us simple layperson patients struggle to be heard, it does give me hope that doctors-as-patients are able to use their own stories to influence positive change.  Thank you Rana for gifting us your story.  I know it will make a difference in the world.