The language we use and the hierarchy that this supports is at the core of creating, leading, and sustaining a safe culture.
The words we use
Listening to the faculty and the future (students) at the Academy for Emerging Leaders in Patient Safety (#AELPS11) over the past three days, I have heard several comments and engaged in more than one conversation regarding hierarchy, ego, and language as barriers to safe care.
During some of these discussions I heard myself and others say things like, “Communicate down to the housekeeper” and “escalate this up to the board”. While I think these comments are made with no malicious intent, and often find myself thinking and saying these things, I firmly believe that we need to be more mindful of what this “directional” language promotes.
When I listen to this language, I hear us unintentionally reinforce professional elitism. The language implies that the housekeeper is at “the bottom” of our organization and that the board member is at “the top”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this but having served in both roles, and having been on the receiving end of these conversations for many years, I believe that this language promotes the belief that the housekeeper is at the bottom of the hierarchy and not an equal voice or participant on the care team. The more we think and speak like this, I believe, we are at risk of discounting the input of those at the lower end of the equation, as well as elevating opinions and ideas of those “at the top”, often at the expense of safe care to patients.
Listening to the team
One story we heard here was the tragic story of Lewis Blackman – a poignant reminder of the aforementioned point was the nutritionist recognizing that Lewis had not touched his food, and yet nutrition orders never changed. Did the nutritionist notice, and wonder why? Was he or she empowered to voice concern, and what might have happened had that been the case?
The care team in healthcare is made up of everyone that interacts, communicates and cares for the patient and their family. The professionals serving in the housekeeping department may spend more time in a patient’s room than many of the clinically trained team on any given day. Ensuring that these team members are engaged, respected, and listened to as valuable team members is a critical component of safe care.
Perhaps it is time that we re-think the structure and hierarchy of traditional healthcare environments
The need for a structure and redesign
I acknowledge that we need some organizing structure to run our teams and organize [lead] our organizations. That said, what we presently have in many healthcare organizations seems to be getting in the way of supporting an innovative, just, safe, learning culture.
In the words of Malcolm Gladwell from his book, What the Dog Saw, “If everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing”. I am also reminded about the words of Don Berwick regarding system design, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the outcomes it is achieving”
It is fair to say that our current healthcare system, if designed to get the outcomes we’re getting (estimated 400,000 lives lost a year from preventable error) needs to be redesigned.
A different approach
I recently read about an alternate approach to organizing an organization, the idea is called Holacracy and was coined by Brian Robertson. This is an alternate way of running an organization, modeled on some concepts that are being adopted more and more by innovative, forward thinking leaders. For example, peer-to-peer business models have changed how we get from A to B (Uber) and have revolutionized finding a place to stay while on vacation (Airbnb). These “disruptive” companies have started re-thinking their internal structures and have abandoned traditional top-down hierarchies, controls and processes. This approach to running an organization removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging supervisor.
What’s interesting is that instead of the anarchy and chaos that one might expect, the work is actually more structured than in a conventional company, it just looks much different. With Holacracy, there is still a clear set of rules and processes for how a team breaks up its work and defines its roles with clear responsibilities and expectations.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, summarizes adoption of this approach like this: “Holacracy is not a panacea: it won’t resolve all an organizations tensions and dilemmas. But, in my experience, it does provide the most stable ground from which to recognize, frame and address them.”
Perhaps we’re ready for a different way to organize and deliver healthcare. Perhaps we’re ready to rethink our hierarchies, controls and processes.
Perhaps healthcare is ready for a little Holacracy.
Reflecting on our first day of the Academy for Emerging Leaders in Patient Safety and I am feeling blessed for the insights, the lessons and for the reminders.
Yesterday morning we watched the Lewis Blackman Story – we were fortunate to have Helen Haskell with us, Lewis’ mother, who graciously and bravely answered our questions, provided more insights and shared the reminder that this November marks the fifteen-year anniversary of the death of Lewis.
I’ve seen this video more than a few times and to be honest was thinking to myself that there was not much more to “learn”. How wrong was I?
Re-watching this emotional story I was abruptly reminded that the stories of communication failure, mis-diagnosis and poor communication are as real and relevant today as they were fifteen years ago, and that being reminded of the work ahead is critical to this effort of making patient care safer, more just, and more transparent.
I watched the video again, took new notes, re-read those notes, and listened to the story and the discussion. I heard things I hadn’t heard before, heard perspectives that I hadn’t paid attention to in the past, learned new lessons, and was left with a re-galvanized commitment to this difficult, rewarding, and necessary work.
In the work that I do with healthcare leaders to change culture, I hear and see a lot of conversations, interactions and exchanges. Having the ability to reflect on what I have heard or seen, either from reading my own notes, re-remembering my experiences, or having the story interpreted by someone with a different perspective, provides me renewed energy, fresh insights and ideas about alternate solutions.
Day 1 reminded me that re-visiting the stories, notes, videos, conversations and perspectives are some of the most powerful reminders of the work still ahead to change the world of patient safety.
Thank you Helen for the reminder.
Yesterday afternoon the faculty and students at the “Telluride-East” Patient Safety Summer Camp visited Arlington National Cemetery.
As we paused for some reflections from our leaders Paul Levy and Dave Mayer I was overcome by the scale of what presented itself in the form of field upon field of white grave markers.
Poignant words reminded those gathered that we were indeed standing on hallowed ground and that many have given, and continue to give, the ultimate sacrifice. A sobering reality is that there are between 25 and 30 new burials every day at the cemetery.
Following our time of reflection I took a walk to reflect on the sacrifice, loss, and scale of what lay beneath me. 400,000 markers of lives once lived, now at rest.
In a recent piece of research published in the Journal of Patient Safety it is estimated that more than 400,000 hospital deaths are attributed to preventable harm. Put another way, since August 2013 more than 400,000 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters are no longer alive as a result of harm that could have been prevented with better designed systems, more situational awareness, and other proven human factors and safety science approaches in health care.
I think these numbers are becoming “noise” for many leaders in healthcare, we have heard the numbers and yet still choose not to make the different decisions and the difficult choices. We disassociate from the difficult reality because we don’t “see” the totality of what we are doing.
The grave markers stopped me in my tracks, a visual reminder of what we are doing every year in healthcare by tolerating variation, blaming people, doing the same things over and over and expecting different outcomes.
My walk took me to the Kennedy family grave site. Off to the side of the eternal flame is a Robert F. Kennedy quote that really resonated with the work we are doing with the faculty and students at Telluride-East:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert F. Kennedy, South Africa, 1966
This quote captures what I will leave this time of learning and sharing with, and what I urge the students, residents and faculty to find the courage to continue doing…
- Lean in and keep speaking up to improve safety; these are the “numberless diverse acts of courage”
- Believe in yourself and the difference you can make
- Stand up for what you know is right and stand up for those less brave and courageous than yourself
- Speak up, even when your voice quivers and your hands shake. Speak up for patients, the ones you care for, know and for the one’s you dont…
- Most of all, send forth a “tiny ripple of hope”. These ripples will build to a current. These ripples will make care safer
- By thinking and acting differently, by bravely speaking up and taking a stand we will sweep down what often feels like a mighty wall
I commit to making ripples and I urge my new found colleagues and friends to do the same.
Make ripples. Ripples save lives, ripples make care safer.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams…”
With each passing hour I am reminded how blessed, humbled and fortunate I am to be a part of this year’s Telluride Patient Safety Summer Camp Roundtable. The setting up here in the mountains is surely beautiful, and so are the dreams, honesty, transparency and truthfulness of the students and their faculty.
With each presentation, discussion, break-out, game, meal, and conversation I am struck by the honesty and openness of the future of healthcare.
We cannot expect to envision and lead a truly safe healthcare culture unless we are willing to dream, and then share those dreams. For these are the dreams of transparent, trusting, patient and caregiver centered, and compassionate care.
I have already learned so much from the students and faculty here in this beautiful place, please keep telling your brave stories, be brave enough to share your dreams, and be brave enough to embrace that you are culture, and your dreams are an inspiration.
Our language, the words we use when we use them, our inflection, emphasis, and our body language are all critical elements of building and leading a safe culture – so too are the feedback loops necessary to keep us honest.
I recently read the transcript of Don Berwick’s 2010 Yale Medical School graduation speech as case study preparation for this year’s Patient Safety Summer Camp in Telluride. One of the most poignant aspects of his speech for me, is the reminder of the power of the words we choose. Don reflects on a patient’s wife hearing the word ‘visitor’ as a label to identify her when visiting her sick husband. Don asks us to reconsider this, to change our mindsets, to think differently.
Don invites us to make a personally accountable choice to consider that it is us, physicians, nurses, housekeepers, technicians, the entire care team – that are in fact the real ‘visitors’ in the lives of those we care for. Think about it – the husband, wife, partner, lover, friend, child, sibling they are the relationships, the rocks, the memories and also, in many cases, the caregivers. Think about how they want to spend time with their dying or sick family member, what do they need? What do they want to talk about? We must remember that we are indeed the visitors in the lives that we are fortunate enough to care for.
The students and faculty at this year’s roundtable have been using different words, and have been open to hearing feedback regarding their mindsets around language and the words they use. I spoke at a recent company meeting about feedback and how we can choose to think of it as either a tennis ball or gift. If the former, it comes at us fast, it could hurt, and we are naturally inclined to want to immediately hit it back. Thinking of feedback as a gift changes our perspective–if done right it’s packaged well, we can take it with us and open it when we want, and it’s ours to do with as we please (keep or discard…)
Watching the #TPSER10 faculty modeling openness to feedback and hearing the tough messages, and hearing the students give and ask for feedback is eye-opening and refreshing. John Nance reminded us that some element of communication failure is behind almost every sentinel event and serious safety event.
Our language, our words, our ability to ask for and receive feedback help us communicate better. Ask for feedback about your language and the words you are using, and then keep the gift…