I used to think it was an accident that I ended up in the health care field, but since all three of my sisters now work in health care in some capacity, as do four of the twelve (yes, twelve!) children in my mother’s family, I decided it must just be hardwired into my DNA. I spent some time recently interviewing my mother and each of her three sisters that now work in health care and they shared their perspectives on how health care works—and should work. Based on their great insights, I hope I’ve also inherited their wisdom.
Health care providers bear a lot of responsibility to be right, with every call, every time, and “mistakes can be costly,” says my aunt Mary, an anesthesiologist. To help with that, her hospital has introduced checklists, alerts, and business methodologies that make providing care more like assembly line work that produces the same on-time, defect-free result with every repetition. However, since biological systems are notoriously less reliable than machines, it is the provider's knowledge and experience that helps with tough decisions when patient lives are on the line. The combination of these new tools with the providers’ proven expertise leads to better patient outcomes.
At my mother’s medical clinic in Anchorage, Alaska, they are well-acquainted with the rollercoaster ride that is Electronic Medical Records implementation, the bureaucratic red tape of reimbursement issues, and the unpredictability of market conditions. They’ve found that success comes from being patient-focused. “We see these people over and over and we build relationships with them,” she says, “You learn to accept them how they are, as they are, where they are.” All they want their patients to know is that they are receiving the best health care possible from people who genuinely care about them. And that’s why the patients keep coming back.
For the system:
As a pharmacist, my aunt Liz has watched for many years as our current health care system has struggled to keep up with our declining health. The change in her patients has been obvious—as nutrition and exercise declined over time, their weight increased, and so did their health problems. “We are done for if we continue on this path,” she says, “There is no way [we] will be healthy enough to be employed and pay into Social Security or Medicare, and soon [we will all] be on Disability.” We have outgrown our health care system—both literally and figuratively—and substantial change is necessary.
The times in our lives in which we need to access health care are times that we are vulnerable, “and people who are vulnerable should have protection,” says my aunt Terry, who has done social work in a number of health care settings. For her, it was eye-opening to enter people’s lives at such a crucial time. “You just learn so much about life. Having death in front of you keeps you on your priorities.” And in her line of work, her patients’ priorities were things like food, housing, and basic health care. To ensure a healthier society, we must look beyond the hospital to ensure all of a patient’s most basic needs are met.
One perspective that my mother and aunts all shared is that only you can make the health care system work for you. Considering all twelve of them grew up in a 900-square foot home, where walking and talking were considered signs that you were of working age, they understand self-sufficiency in a way many of us will never have to experience. But they make a good point. “The health care industry wouldn’t be so busy if people weren’t so sick,” says my mother. “Patients have to have investment in their own health,” says my aunt Mary. And now, because I always listen to my elders, I think I’ll go for a short walk. Care to join me?