We often reflect on how different health care is from other services and industries, but my experience as a passenger made me think about the similarities.
First – disorientation. Where am I? Where do I go? What is the system here? The environment was acutely unfriendly – full fluorescent lighting 24/7. Then the lack of information and the misinformation – being told flights were cancelled, then that they were not, (then that they were again). Hours passing – being directed from one end of the airport to the other, then back again, standing in line for hours, then being scolded for not being in the right place at the right time with the right piece of paper. Sound familiar?
Then – uncertainty. Will I get to where I am expecting to go, and what will happen to me if I don't? Who will make a decision and when? Not knowing who is in charge, who to ask for help, and no help being available. Finally, impatience and disregard from staff, who, themselves stressed and tired (and unable to get home), are sharp and unhelpful, most evidently with those who are most vulnerable, least able to comprehend and least able to look after themselves.
But it didn’t have to be like that. On the advice of one of the airport cleaners, I masqueraded as the passenger of a different airline, whose staff assured passengers that they would be there with them all night (and that they would be safe). They cobbled together blankets, food and drink, and did periodic walk-rounds to check if people were alright. What a contrast. Ultimately, the experience was the same – we were all stuck in the same place, for the same time – but the sense of being cared about and empathised with was very different.
I hesitate to name the company, in case this was simply a case of the basic human values of the individuals concerned and not corporate policy. But the staff's helpfulness and compassion made me consider how, in turn, their company treats them, as opposed to the company with whom I was supposed to travel.
The big difference is, of course, that in travel as in many other industries, customers do have some choice: when I confessed that I was not their passenger, a staff member said 'That's all right, I'll bet next time you will be'. In health care – at least, at present – one's capacity to choose is not the same. But the feelings of loss of control were highly familiar to the stories we hear all the time from patients. Health care providers could learn a few lessons from the second airline in treating patients with respect and reassurance.
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