Treating Patients as Human Beings
By Collin Searle
Dec 5, 2016
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
In fact, even while patients are being provided with high quality technical care, they are often dehumanized in subtle ways — stripped of their clothing; called by their condition rather than their name; subjected to tests and exams they don’t understand, by doctors they don’t know.
Finding answers to these questions is what motivates Dr. Samuel Brown, director of the Center for Humanizing Critical Care at Intermountain Healthcare.
The Center brings researchers and clinicians together to focus on helping patients and family members make it through life-threatening illnesses and injuries with their humanity and dignity intact.
Dehumanization happens when you deny people’s human qualities, such as personality, reasoning and spirit. Extreme cases of dehumanization occur during war or genocide, and these are often deliberate. However Dr. Brown has found through research that most dehumanizing acts in medical settings occur unintentionally.
An overwhelming majority of health care professionals are caring people who are committed to helping others. That is why they have chosen a medical career. But being a clinician often requires complicated analytical thinking. And awareness of a patient’s humanity may become a distraction that affects their ability to do their job.
Additionally, some critical care professionals unconsciously “turn off” their empathy and dehumanize patients to protect themselves from sadness associated patients patients’ death, a distressingly common outcome from an intensive care unit stay. This psychological shield may enable some medical providers to continue to care for critically ill and dying patients day after day.
Dr. Brown’s primary goal is to develop approaches to critical care that acknowledge and respect patients as human beings, while still protecting caregivers from added stress and burn out.
Many commonly accepted critical care treatment practices result in unintentional psychological harm and suffering. Patients may feel abandoned, disillusioned, and confused. Many recovered ICU patients experience levels of PTSD similar to those of combat veterans.
The impact is physical as well as psychological, and can affect the patient’s outcome and ability to heal.
There are no simple solutions to changing the culture of ICU patient care, and further research needs to be done. But under Dr. Brown’s leadership, Intermountain has already taken steps toward improvement.
Dr. Brown encourages medical practitioners to observe what he calls “The Dinner Party Rule,” treating each patient like he or she is the respected host of a dinner party. These basic guidelines include:
Physicians don’t hesitate to call experts to help solve a medical problem. The same principle should apply to the more personal aspects of care. At Intermountain, the “experts” on an individual patient— their loved ones—are involved in numerous stages of patient care, from life support to physical therapy. The result is improved patient engagement, better morale, and better outcomes.
On an ongoing basis, one of the challenges of making critical care medicine human is finding the appropriate balance. Patients should be treated humanely and with dignity, while medical providers need to psychologically care for themselves so they can continue to do their jobs.
Dr. Brown believes that the answer lies within our ability as humans to empathize. By tapping into their human capacity to think, to care and to honor, medical professionals can begin to find the balance they need to provide respectful, high-quality critical care.