“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
These six lines from a poem written in 1833 continue to speak with force and vigour. Some have found in them inspiration in the face of adversity. These words have been used as calls for action in popular culture.
In Australia, as in many other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the growing recognition that the current healthcare system is broken. The management model may have provided efficiencies and better health economics, but it has failed to prepare for the ageing population and value the importance of trust.
There has also been an escalating level of expectation in the population of what healthcare can do, as well as what people are entitled to. Transitions between care settings and the fiscal separation between community and hospital care have also been highlighted by the Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.1
Societal uncertainty now rules the land, but has also provided a potential for disruptive innovation in how we can reshape healthcare. So many longstanding barriers were overcome as services worked together to maintain service delivery. Telemedicine is a case in point.
But the title of this piece suggests a dehumanisation of the leadership in healthcare – or a perception that healthcare has lost its humanity. This is where we need to start.
There is often an inauthentic nature to the communication in healthcare that not only exists in the care for people and their families, but also in the management of the employees in the healthcare system. COVID-19 has demonstrated that we are all vulnerable, but some people are more vulnerable than others at various points in their life.
The deterioration in health, either from illness or ageing, carries people into our healthcare system when they are most vulnerable, and emotions are often high. Connecting with people at this time needs to reflect humanity, care, and safety as we practise the art of medicine professionally and compassionately.
When the system that comprises humans cannot convey the human aspect of care, then something has gone terribly wrong.
Learning from the past
There is often wisdom from the past that can guide us into the future.
The ancient phrase “Physician heal thyself” provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our own issues and needs. We are wounded healers, and it’s that woundedness that connects us to those we serve.
Grappling with the uncertainty of our future should make all healthcare leaders recognise that the projection of certainty and care is unconvincing.
Authenticity starts with each individual as they develop a curiosity and understanding of who they are. We can then recognise the same emotions, imperfections and suffering that exists in those around us.
Healthcare needs to look within, and find a way to reconnect with the people it serves. Perhaps the revolution in healthcare will occur in the minds of leaders who start to think holistically about how we deliver care. More importantly, can they ignite that passion in those that will deliver the care?
This article originally appeared in Monash Lens https://lens.monash.edu/@medicine-health/2021/09/23/1383814/the-search-for-humanity-in-healthcare-leadership
- Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Final report: Care, Dignity and Respect https://agedcare. royalcommission.gov.au/publications/final-report Commonwealth of Australia. 2021
Professor Leeroy William, FAChPM is the Adjunct Clinical Professor at Eastern Health Clinical School, Melbourne, Australia