How Physician Vulnerability Improves Nurse Retention, Morale and Compassionate Patient Care

Posted on November 23, 2022 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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A pediatric surgeon at a large regional hospital shared this story with me in the course of a recent Compassionate Accountability® training program we were facilitating in her hospital. Her story illustrated the paradoxical power of vulnerability to improve compassionate patient care, engagement and morale.

Let’s call this surgeon Dr. Hart. Dr. Hart was preparing for a complex surgery on a six year-old patient. As is usually the case with these types of surgeries, it was charged with emotion, the stakes were high, parents and family were on edge.

She felt nervous and afraid, despite her experience. She wanted it to go well. She was confident in her skills, but still had some anxiety about it all. The esteemed Dr Hart would never share that with anyone, though. Everyone expected her to be the strong, confident one. Her track record was impressive. She worried that if anyone knew how she really felt they would lose confidence in her and question her competence. Her medical training conditioned doctors to be strong, confident, and show no cracks.

Part of preparation for surgery involves obtaining lots of paperwork; signed documents, lab results, insurance, and various releases. Everything has to be in order. Dr. Hart’s usual approach to this was to bark orders to her nurses who were running around like crazy at the last minute. Nobody enjoyed surgery prep with her. Everyone felt stressed, defensive and on edge.

After learning that Compassionate Accountability means taking responsibility for your own feelings, thoughts and actions, and that it’s OK to ask for help, Dr. Hart recognized that her feelings and experience were important and valid and that she needed support rather than having to be so cold and callous. She also recognized that the whole surgery process was adversarial in nature and not conducive to the type of team environment that was required to provide the best quality care. 

So she decided to try something different. 

Dr. Hart gathered her team together and disclosed her feelings of fear and anxiety. She told them how she worried that they would criticize her. She also asked for their support, as well as their help to create the best possible environment for success for this child and his family. It went something like this:

“I’m feeling anxious and a little afraid about this surgery. I am worried that if I share this, you will think less of me and my competence as a surgeon. What I realize is that I need your support and I want us to be a team. We all play an important role in getting through this successfully. I’m committed to supporting you in a more positive way. How does that sound?”

Contrary to her expectations, her team of nurses were stunned and delighted by her vulnerability. They shared their own feelings about the process and told her they also wished for a closer, more collaborative environment. They rallied around her and the patient, coming together to get all the paperwork done, all the preparations in place.  

The surgery was successful. Afterwards, they celebrated together and agreed to be more open with each other. They also shared how much more rewarding the experience was than in the past.

Dr. Hart chose to go against the norm, question the status quo, and be brave enough to get vulnerable with her team. To do that, she had to recognize that vulnerability is not weakness, especially when you engage your team to help you. Compassion means literally “to suffer with.”

How can a care team practice compassionate patient care if they don’t practice compassion with each other?

Dr. Hart didn’t ask anyone to take away her fear or take over the surgery. She invited others into the process, asked them for help, and made a commitment to treat them with dignity and respect.

Here’s how to respond with compassion when you can’t take away the suffering and you can’t fix it?

Dr. Hart’s department director was in the same training with her. After she shared this story, the director commented on how powerful this behavior was in terms of increasing engagement and morale. “We are dealing with a terrible staffing shortage right now, scrambling to find and keep good nurses.” she explained, “So when a nurse and a physician have a good relationship and they enjoy working together, that’s a game changer for retention,”

Dr Hart chimed in, “It also improves quality of care and the patient experience because I was more relaxed going in, and the family could tell we were working as a team of people who liked each other and were focused on providing the best care possible instead of distracted by our own drama.”

Kindness, care and respect for others doesn’t have to come at the expense of results and quality.

Compassionate Accountability is about building connections while getting results, or stated another way, getting better results through closer connections with others.

Compassion requires the bravery to be vulnerable with the people on your team, the humility to set your ego aside and ask for help, and the courage to do what’s right.

  • With whom do you need to get vulnerable today in order to build a stronger connection?
  • Who do you need to ask for help so that others can feel empowered and contribute more?
  • What past experiences, training, or habits do you need to challenge in order to be a better leader, caregiver, parent, coach or friend?

Don’t wait. The world needs more compassion. Today.

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

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