Humility is the first step to better health care. It’s a word that’s not usually associated with medicine.
Eight years ago, I saw humility in action when the doctor and the doula delivered our son.
They both communicated openly, respected each other’s roles, and worked as a team. Instead, they spoke openly, respected one another’s roles, worked together as a unit, and trusted one another. What was most important to us was that they actively listened to my wife and put her needs first.
The team’s professionalism and humility together helped to create the most memorable moment of our life: the healthy birth of a baby boy.
Talk about the concept of “teaming.”
The patient, as a member of the team
Our experience with these clinicians made an important impression on me because, as a social science, I study how clinicians work together. I examine how doctors, nurses, and the entire team of healthcare workers can show more professionalism to improve outcomes for both patients and healthcare workers.
Professional humility is the act of all health care providers – doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals – seeing themselves as part of the same team.
This means that team members must share the same goals and understand their limitations. They should also be able to see other people’s strengths and involve the patient or caregiver in the decision-making process.
Professional humility is a result of the willingness to include the patient in the team. Instead of discussing the patient between themselves, providers speak directly to the patient and actively LISTEN. When they are wrong or don’t have the answer, they admit it. Instead of talking down to patients, they explain things calmly in everyday language and avoid arcane medical terminology.
We have a communication failure.
The power of humility
Growing research shows that humility in clinicians positively impacts patient satisfaction, health outcomes, and overall healthcare. Evidence is also emerging that humility can be beneficial to healthcare providers, serving as a protection factor against burnout as well as clinical uncertainties.
Why isn’t it used more in health care if it is so beneficial? Why is humility not taught formally in schools of medicine, nursing, and other professions?
Many people have experienced or seen scenarios in which clinicians display the opposite of humbleness. Examples include when providers openly disrespect each other, engage in power struggles, or ignore, rush, dismiss, or speak rudely to a patient. There are many examples of how a lack of humility can be seen in the healthcare industry.
Humility can be hard to achieve in professional environments. I have found that healthcare providers still assume that intellectual humility is a sign of a lack of knowledge and confidence. This is the opposite of the message they want to send their students.
Communication between doctors and their patients is key to building trusting relationships.
Money and turf wars
The lack of humility in health care may stem from systemic, pervasive issues within the industry. The competition between departments for resources and internal fighting heavily influences today’s culture in health care. Even during the years of training, there is a competition to achieve the highest test scores, the most opportunities, and the most recognition. This is not the kind of background that would lead someone to embrace the concept of humility.
Research shows that humility does not indicate weakness or doubt in one’s self. It reflects exceptional confidence and security. These are the attributes of a team-oriented, patient-centered healthcare workforce.
This is another example of professionalism that I saw in my son when he was around 6. While I was in a nearby meeting, he was spinning in my office chair. He fell off my chair and hit his head against the corner of my office desk. It was quite a gash.
My meeting with the group was a mix of physicians, nurses, and physician assistants. A team of clinicians assessed my son to determine if he needed stitches. Professional humility was evident in the way they spoke to him gently, despite their professional “rank,” by collectively assessing his wound and asking for opinions from other colleagues. They also engaged me directly while making jokes about the uncertainty.
Researchers are only just beginning to understand how professionalism and humility lead to better teamwork, which in turn leads to more effective care. Early research indicates that humility is an important ingredient.
You may face difficult decisions or fearful uncertainties in the future if you find yourself or someone you love in the hospital. You will want to be surrounded by a team of healthcare professionals who are communicative, harmonious, and connected. This calmness in the chaos gives patients and their families hope, reassurance, and healing.