A Policy Won’t Guarantee Empathy

Posted by Kristin Baird on October 24th, 2017 • No Comments »

Healthcare can tend to be a bit policy heavy, but policy doesn’t drive empathy. Of course, policies and procedures give valuable structure and set standards for reliable care. When it comes to creating a positive, memorable patient experience and culture of service excellence, policies and procedures will only take you so far. It’s how you execute the policies and procedures that will leave the lasting memories.

Several years ago my friend “Sarah” lost her 22 year old son “Jerod” in a tragic accident. He lived his last hours of life in a trauma unit with his very distraught mother at his side. When she recounted the events that transpired, I was shocked, disappointed and gut-wrenchingly sad.

Being that he was a young, healthy man when the accident occurred, Jerod was an ideal organ donor. Sarah recounted how the organ procurement nurse approached her with such compassion as she requested organ donation. Sarah, being a nurse herself, immediately agreed to having her Jerod’s organs harvested, feeling some consolation that, in spite of her loss, others could have a chance at life.

What happened after that left me stunned. Sarah stayed at Jerod’s side until he passed away. When she got up to leave, no one said a word to her, but one of the nurses handed her a trash bag. Sarah ask, “What’s this?” The nurse said, “Oh, it’s your son’s things. We’re supposed to send them home with you.”

Adding Insult to Injury

Sarah later told me how horrible it felt to leave her dead son behind as she left the hospital. Her sadness was further compounded by the trash bag. She said, “Once they had his organs, he wasn’t important anymore. I was literally taking out the trash. They couldn’t even box them up or walk me to my car.”

I have a feeling there was a policy somewhere that read something like this: In the event of a patient death, staff should return all personal belongings to the next of kin.

In the absence of empathy and compassion, this policy could be carried out in a number of ways. Dumping the personal belongings in the trash bag and handing them to the next of kin is, in fact, following policy. But how would this story end if that same staff member was driven by empathy and compassion? The possessions would have been placed in a nice box with Jerod’s name hand written on it. Inside the box would be a nice note addressing Sarah by name and expressing sincere condolences for the tragic loss of Jerod. There would have been hugs, words of sympathy and an offer to escort Sarah to her car.  But policy was followed without any niceties. And Sarah grieves not only the loss of her son, but also about how her fellow healthcare professionals let her down at such a fragile time.

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Baird Consulting

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