A year ago, I sat in a hospital waiting room for hours into the night in Denver, only to leave after my intense stomach pains had lessened and my fears about an overwhelming medical bill set in. My frustrations increased as the time passed…Why can’t I just see a doctor? Who is even working here? I unfairly started to blame the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff.
While we wait in the emergency room, there is a nurse going without lunch because they’re treating six patients by themself in an intentionally understaffed hospital. There’s likely a doctor in training on their 75th hour of work that week, scrambling to find a more affordable medication for their patient who is barred from prescription assistance programs by pharmaceutical companies. There are EMTs rushing patients through the doors, stressed about getting to their other job–because minimum wage as an EMT doesn’t pay the bills.
We all deserve quality healthcare. However, we will never achieve a vision of health and wellness while our healthcare workforce is exploited–with this burden carried by Black and Brown people who are hyper-exploited in these systems. Many healthcare workers entered this field because they care about people and want to heal their community, but they’re hit with a harsh reality–the system focuses on profit rather than patients and workers.
Healthcare corporations use workers much like an assembly line force, to treat as many patients as possible, while maximizing profit. This presents workers with a dilemma: they often have to compromise their emotional and physical wellbeing in order to provide quality care within a system that values money more than healing.
I’ve seen the conversation on burnout turn its focus to a limited solution–providing mental health resources for the workforce. While this may be helpful on an individual level, it will never interrupt the decisions made by CEOs that create worsening quality of care for all of us, and unethical expectations of workers. We don’t need bandaids. The system needs a shakeup. The type of movement needed to transform our corporate healthcare system will never be successful without healthcare workers leveraging power together.
Since I started building a team of healthcare workers organizing against our corporate healthcare system, I’ve realized that many of them are as fed up as I am. Many workers are no longer willing to uphold the impossible expectations set by administrators who are not on the frontlines of patient care. They are disheartened by the ways the healthcare system runs them into the ground while simultaneously claiming that they care about people. And they are deeply frustrated that their patients can’t get necessary testing or treatment because it’s not covered by insurance, or the out-of-pocket cost is outrageously expensive. This reality can manifest as guilt or trauma and is a heavy emotional burden to carry. Some have felt so much distress that they have already made the difficult decision to leave patient care, while others are not far behind.
The leaders on our healthcare organizing team often speak about the ways they suffer as patients as well. They are not immune to the expensive medical bills, impossibly long wait times, and medical errors from understaffing.
At Center for Health Progress, we organize healthcare workers because they know their career, community, and well-being are on the line. Our healthcare organizing team is in the process of launching a campaign that will demand more accountability in the healthcare system, to both patients and providers. When we move from, “I’m in this fight for you” to “We’re in this fight for us” we organize from a much more powerful place–where unity, liberation, and long-term commitment are possible.
August, a leader with CHP and a provider working in intensive care said, "Everyday I see confusion, fear, and pain in my patients eyes as they weigh the cost of their kids’ education against their own desire to live to see their children graduate. Medicine or daycare? Medicine or food? Doctors take an oath: first, do no harm. In our modern healthcare system, it is becoming harder and harder to convince myself that I am able to keep that promise.”
Erin, a leader with CHP and an emergency medicine provider, shared, “Sometimes it feels pointless because my individual voice is not heard. As a cog in the wheel, all I can do is try to find work-arounds for failures in our system. It is exhausting and traumatizing to put a never-ending supply of bandaids on the gushing wounds of our healthcare failures. Organizing allows me to actually address the bigger problems and it gives me hope that one day we can bring humanity back to the center of healthcare.”
As a patient and an organizer, I’m terrified when our leaders tell me, “The last place you want to be right now is in a hospital, because it’s dangerous.” I worry there will be no medical assistants, nurses, or doctors there for me or my family when we need them most because they felt they had no choice but to leave a system that betrayed them and their communities.
However, I find so much joy and hope in my deep relationships with healthcare workers like Erin and August, who envision and commit to a new reality.
By building collective power, across patients and providers, I’ve realized the real blame should be placed on the greedy corporations who profit off all of us. If you work in healthcare and are reading this in agreement, there is a place for you in our movement. Please reach out to me at Carly.Weisenberg@centerforhealthprogress.org. Together, we can harness our shared anger and move together to fight for a healthcare system that values our actual humanity and wellness.