Use The Power of Human Exceptionalism to Improve The Patient Experience
March 31, 2017
If there is a single quality unique to being human, it is self-awareness — that we know we are human as opposed to being anything else.
And that we have a sense of identity unique from any other human being.
My puppy, now almost 9 (!), does not know he is a dog. He responds according to what he wants and likes. He ignores what he does not want or want to do, and he goes after whatever his instincts tell him to.
Last summer, my puppy was barking up a storm in the backyard. When my husband and I went to see what was so exciting, we found a tiny bird on the other side of the fence, wounded and chirping.
We got our pup away from the bird and did what we could to put it in a position of safety. However, only minutes later, the same tiny wounded bird was back where we found it, chirping its dying elegy.
A wounded bird does not know that it does not have to die. It does not know the concept of “death” or “life.” It does not know it is a bird.
Not so with people. In humans, wounded-ness often draws out the strength and determination, the vitality of a life wanting to move past injury to health, with or without permanent disability. We may be aware of what is happening to us, but we seldom respond passively.
In fact, we have to be worn down emotionally and physically before we experience learned helplessness, the sense that we cannot affect our own future or anything that is happening around us.
Human Exceptionalism is Part of the Patient Experience
Often, being a patient is about wounded-ness. It may be about an injury or condition that may alter the patient’s future in unexpected ways. It may be about the end of life. And, it may be about a better life.
Patients’ humanity and unique self-awareness allow them to make choices about how they cope and deal with those events. That’s the essence of human exceptionalism — and a key part of the patient experience.
Human exceptionalism is our awareness of who we are and our ability to rise above surrounding circumstances to keep that which is so unique about us.
It is all about the power essential to being human: self-awareness, determination, self-will; and each of these laced with hope, optimism, and trust. It’s also about our capacity to adapt and renew who we are as we move through life.
No other species has the inherent ability to move beyond itself and know it is doing so!
How The Environment of Care Supports Human Exceptionalism
When patients awaken and take stock of where they are and what has happened, the “where” speaks loudly to them. The environment in which they find themselves represents their self-worth, the quality of care they are receiving, and their own capacity to heal.
For that reason, a patient’s capacity to heal and be restored to health lies as much with where they are as who they are. The potential to heal must be palpable, so intense that it becomes tangible to the patient.
What patients hear and see becomes the most dominant messages of either possibility or impossibility. Clutter, darkness, light, people talking, a squeaky wheel on a cart, or other noise can undermine a patient’s own healing capacity.
The patient experience can offer the very moment when a person can become whole — or not. If the experience in awakening to a new situation in the hospital is negative or has a feeling of helplessness or pity, the damage to patients can extend beyond their physical well-being.
It can also extend long beyond the hospitalization.
Florence Nightingale carefully guarded against such damage, but always acknowledged the risk. Wisely, she stayed away from the concept of cure.
Rather, she wrote, “Being well is using well the powers we have.”
And, this allows each patient to heal into a new life. It is what defines human exceptionalism.
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