The Secret to Excellent Medical Care (Hint: Painted Sneakers)

Craig Joseph, MD
By: Craig Joseph, MD
Date: February 28, 2019

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the day-long CHIME CIO Forum that precedes the HIMSS conference in Orlando. It’s a great get-together; there is much hobnobbing and networking with smart CIOs and vendor executives, as well as a slate of speakers that challenge the audience to think beyond our typical world of healthcare information technology. One of the lectures was given by Kate Sheridan, and she stopped me in my tracks with her wisdom and insights.

Kate was a healthy, athletic middle schooler when she started to develop vague pain, limb swelling, and fatigue. As is often the case with such symptomatology, there was no clear or obvious disease process that could easily explain what was going on. Even worse, there was no magic cure for her ailments. She spent several years seeing various specialists, but her episodes continued to wax and wane. She was in and out of the hospital and became a regular at emergency departments around town.

Kate became what can pejoratively be called a “frequent flier.”  With her numerous visits to the ED and her occasional ambulance rides, she learned that she unfortunately didn’t always see the best side of her caregivers. Doctors and nurses didn’t always make eye contact when they were speaking with her. Imaging techs sometimes talked about her as if she wasn’t even there. Registrars might just skip the small talk and ask to see her insurance card, thank you very much. As Kate put it, she was “a patient, not a person.”

A patient, not a person. It’s sad to think that those of us in healthcare have come to that, but it’s true. I recognize the inclination in myself, even though I haven’t seen a patient in a professional context in a while. I remember working in urgent care, and just wanting to get through the night. As my shift progressed, there might be fewer jokes, less chitchat. Just the facts, ma’am. When did the rash start? How many times did the child vomit? Just let me get the data points that I need so I can figure out what, if anything, can be done. Then, onto the next patient. I hope that this was an infrequent occurrence for me, but I know it happened.

Kate observed that sometimes, she was able to snap a healthcare provider out of their funk. Sometimes the IV nurse was a bit more gentle. Sometimes she was able to get into a bed on the floor a bit quicker. Sometimes the doctor snuck her the good snacks that were more difficult to obtain. These magic things happened when she connected with those caring for her. But to make that connection, she needed a spark.

She discovered the spark: her painted sneakers. Kate’s an artist, and she liked to decorate her sneakers with wild colors and designs. Paramedics noticed; triage nurses noticed; surgeons noticed. They all saw her shoes and commented on them. “Hey, cool shoes. Where’d you buy those?” When she heard that, she was in!

Her one-of-a-kind hand-painted sneakers turned her from a patient to a person. A 20-second conversation about how she’s an artist and likes to customize her footwear was the “in” that she needed. She was no longer a cog or a widget; she was a person just like her caregiver, and her caregivers could suddenly see themselves lying on that gurney. Her painted sneakers successfully shocked her doctors and nurses back to the reasons they went into this business in the first place: to help people.

I normally blog about the intersection between healthcare and IT. Perhaps this topic is more germane to the former and less to the latter. Perhaps not. It’s important to remember that while we toil away at helpdesk tickets and upgrade release notes, we’re not doing our work in a vacuum. Our clinical and operational users can’t do their jobs without the technology that we provide. We in IT need to understand that our decisions affect many people as they care for patients; we need to keep those users and their patients in mind as we support the tools they use. As we work, we must focus on those users and patients. Wait. I mean we must focus on people. People who are just like us.

Do you have a “painted sneaker” story from your workplace? If so, please share it!

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