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Reclaiming humanity in health care

Why aren’t we physicians kinder to ourselves? Why aren’t we kinder to our colleagues? Why aren’t we kinder to our patients? I tend to think the answer to all of the above questions is a disrespect many of us have for what we consider being human.

For some reason, many of us in health care associate our humanity only with what holds us back from being our best. In fact, there is a spectrum of the qualities that make us human. It includes compassion, competence, and strength as much as anger, error, and overwhelm.

Our focus on humanity’s negativity starts in the preclinical years. How will you learn the Krebs cycle if you have to take breaks to eat and pee? The truly excellent student suppresses the basic needs of a mere human and learns to function like a cyborg. When superhuman is the standard, being human is a source of shame.

Unfortunately, dissociation from such fundamental aspects of human existence as sleeping when you are tired makes it challenging to tap into the human traits you perceive as more positive. Ideally, we would take a pause to get back to our humanity when we sense ourselves losing our kindness and compassion. Instead, many of us do, subconsciously and consciously, diminish and dismiss the human traits we previously valued as positive.

Anything that makes you identifiably mortal is viewed as an obstacle to achievement. Vulnerability, along with hunger and adequate hydration, is added to the list of barriers to clinical excellence.

Ironically, this release of what makes you human is considered both necessary and temporary in order to become the best healer possible. You will figure out how to be a human healer once training is complete and you feel more autonomy in your life. The challenge is when all your success strategies are developed in the absence of honoring your humanity; it’s nigh impossible to convince yourself you can maintain your desired level of achievement while being human.

This is the dysfunctional mindset many physicians bring into life after training and have to overcome to establish sustainable well-being. Being well as an attending isn’t about figuring out how to be superhuman in a new setting. It’s about acknowledging, celebrating, and embracing all the things you can accomplish as a human who is a clinician.

To be fair, many health care organizations you join after training perpetuate this superhuman ideal. They have observed generations of the monetary results they want coming from disregarding clinicians’ humanity. Thus, this whole honoring humanity approach is received with trepidation and sometimes contempt.

What I think both clinicians and health care organizations need is a mindset reset. Simply considering that being human is compatible with good care and good business is the first step in being open to the numerous strategies for supporting humanity while maintaining excellence. It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about doing a holistic re-evaluation of what those standards are yielding over the long term in terms of the mission we all have to be well (mentally, physically, and financially) while doing good.

Jattu Senesie is an obstetrician-gynecologist.

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