The Human Touch
the bottom line is feeling welcomed and cared for.
I’m looking at the world a bit differently these
days—not as an administrator or physician but
as a husband whose wife had a brief, dramatic encounter
with the health care system.
Thankfully, the biopsy came back negative. We’re
all relieved. It’s been an emotional roller coaster—for
the patient and her family.
Lynne gave me permission to tell her story because
there are important messages here.
Some months ago, she underwent a routine mammogram
at Green Spring Station and the radiologists spotted
something. The next week, an aspiration cytology identified
a ductal papilloma, a wart-like lump that only in rare
instances develops into breast cancer.
The initial decision: “Don’t do anything;
we’ll just watch it.” But after further
reflection, radiologist Cecelia Brennecke recommended
Nagi Khouri, director of breast imaging, concurred
and said, “If it were my wife, I would go in
and take out the tissue around the site just to make
We followed his advice. Though I’ve been in
medicine a long time, when it comes to a decision like
this I’m like most consumers. I listen to the
experts. Lynne had the procedure done at the Johns
Hopkins Outpatient Center. The experience proved an
When we arrived, the waiting area in ambulatory surgery
was as pleasant as the staff members we met. They handled
paperwork promptly and after a short wait took Lynne
upstairs to the beautiful Avon Foundation Breast Center.
Volunteers at the center provide amazing support for
women about to undergo treatment. Lillie Shockney,
the administrative director, is spectacular in the
way she comforts patients and families.
I noticed that people were taking time to make contact
with patients in a very human way—through soothing
words or a moment of “touch time.” The
nurses couldn’t have been more supportive. Ted
Tsangaris, our surgeon and chief of breast surgery,
walked by while we were in the Avon Center and rested
his hand on Lynne’s shoulder. It had a profound
impact on her, and on me.
When we went downstairs for the procedure, anesthesiologist
Tracey Stierer carefully explained what would be happening,
putting Lynne at ease.
All around us that day, I saw similar scenes unfolding.
What impressed me was the extra effort the doctors,
nurses and staff took in getting to know the patients,
answer their questions and diminish their fears. As
Lynne said later, it was this human interaction, these
expressions of caring, that mattered most.
Our experience started me thinking: How did we get
to the point where the driving force in medicine is
the bottom line, improving efficiency, holding down
costs and pumping more people through the health care
That’s not what matters to patients. They
want to know someone will look after them and tell
them what’s going on. They want assurance that
their medical team is focused on their well-being.
Through words and actions they want to be told, “We
care about you.”
It’s ironic that with all the advances we’ve
made in medical science, the thing patients remember
is the one-on-one, human side of medicine.
Treating people so they feel welcomed and cared-for
creates a patient’s comfort and confidence.
It starts at the point of entry. Hotels know that
the first seven minutes guests spend with them sets
the tone for the entire experience. That’s why
hotels emphasize attentive parking attendants and bellhops,
an inviting lobby and a friendly yet rapid registration
Hospitals need to create the same sort of positive “first
impression” that includes a welcoming environment,
a one-stop shop for paperwork, waiting rooms that are
pleasing to the eye and comfortable, and above all,
support personnel who know they are vital to the care
Everyone in a hospital helps deliver health care,
from the security guard to the registration clerk,
cleaning crew and cafeteria staffers. They set the
mood. Similarly, physicians and nurses can alleviate
patient apprehensions with a few extra moments of personal
time. A touch of the hand or pat on the shoulder can
ease a worried mind and send a patient’s confidence
soaring. If a physician simply sits down in a patient’s
room, it makes a big difference. Patients sense you
are focused on their problem. You’re not peering
down at them.
We’ve got to be more attentive about patient
discharges, too. We should make it easy to fill prescriptions
before departure—so there’s no extra trip
to a drug store later. Paperwork should be handled
quickly. And let’s give patients clear instructions,
phone numbers to call for problems and a chance to
ask questions before leaving.
Above all, we need to rediscover the personal side
of hospital health care. Yes, wringing efficiencies
from the system is important—but only if we remember
that the central focus always must be the needs and
feelings of our patients.