Train wreck. Drug seeker. Whiner. Hypochondriac. These are just a few names I’ve heard staff use when describing patients. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if caregivers just came clean from the beginning and posted the label right across the patient’s forehead when he arrived. After all, the rest of the team knows about the label. The only one in the dark is the patient himself. Smacking the label right out there could help solve a few mysteries for the patient—that way, he’d be clear about the manner in which he’s being handled from the start. Maybe we could even create a new triage system like those used during a disaster when we tag people. Bleeders over here, whiners in the back, drug seekers and train wrecks…just stay put because we plan on ignoring you until you give up and leave. It might just work, and it would take some of the guesswork out of the equation.
Sarcasm aside, labeling is dangerous. It limits the healthcare professional’s ability to see the patient objectively and demonstrate authentic respect for his life and his situation. A culture that tolerates patient labeling is one that, regardless of the printed mission, vision, values, and standards, fosters disrespect. I’ve yet to see a mission, vision, or value statement that commits to “compassionate care (except when dealing with train wrecks, drug seekers, and hypochondriacs).”
Unfortunately, labeling patients is rampant and is often so engrained in the culture that people don’t even realize it’s happening. I’ve overheard these labels being thrown around in ERs, clinics, and hospital units. They’ve been used by doctors, nurses, techs, and administrators alike. Each time I hear someone being labeled, it hurts me to the core. That patient, regardless of his track record, deserves respect. Leaders who turn a deaf ear to the labeling are actually doing more damage than the individuals engaged in the actual conversation. When leaders fail to take swift action against patient labeling, they are condoning the behavior….What you permit, you promote.
My challenge to anyone who works in healthcare is to commit to a label-free environment. Leaders can set the stage by modeling respectful behavior. Create a culture where everyone takes ownership and is willing to call others out if they label patients. It may take a few awkward conversations to start the shift, but it’s well worth the effort.