Susan E. Mazer, Ph.D. Blog

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Hi, and welcome to my blog! I'm Susan E. Mazer -- a knowledge expert and thought leader on how the environment of care impacts the patient experience. Topics I write about include safety, satisfaction, hospital noise, nursing, care at the bedside, and much more.

Honoring Dr. Leland R. Kaiser’s Legacy of Healing Health Care

January 18, 2019

If we are fortunate in our pursuit of meaningful work, we will find a mentor, a leader who will help us find our way. A guide who will let us know that no matter what is going on around us, we can put on the blinders of “purpose and mission” and move forward. I was fortunate enough to find that guide, mentor, and friend when I met Dr. Leland R. Kaiser.

Dr. Leland (Lee) R. Kaiser was an icon for many of us who pursued a better future for our communities. He was so far ahead of his time and right on time for us personally and professionally.

Meeting Our Inspirational Friend

Dr. Kaiser and Dr. Mazer, August, 2012

My husband Dallas and I met Lee in 1989, when we were performing at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, as part of a Music in Residence program I developed. The program put us in various units of the hospital for up to 8 hours, across shifts, meals, and long enough to move past the “entertainment” factor. As he walked into the unit and heard our music, he instantly knew what we were doing in creating a therapeutic environment.

He fully understood what healing environments were and how critical they were (and continue to be) to the healing of both patient and caregiver. Lee intuitively knew that our music mattered and was greater than the notes we played and the instruments we practiced. He believed in the use of your intuition so that “doing what is right” becomes a real ethic.

Sparking Change Through Innovative Thinking

Lee Kaiser was a systems thinker. He talked about it and used systems thinking as the context in which he would describe the future of hospitals and healthier communities. He taught us that all living things are connected; that we each influence our present and future lives and the health of each other. There are no separations.

He saw the hospital as a community center, a cultural center, and most importantly, more than a place of sickness and suffering. Lee always thought that the Board of Directors of each hospital needed to see themselves as community leaders, as holding the health of their neighbors, kids, and elderly in their trust and care.

Through this empathetic understanding, he advocated that every hospital’s Board of Directors should visit those who lived near their hospital because of the dramatic impact hospitals have on their communities and specifically their neighbors. As Lee always said, “You are neighbors to everyone within line of sight of your hospital. Do you know how they are doing? If they need anything? If their kids are thriving?”

He felt that meeting real people, who need acknowledgment and care, would change how hospitals account for their budgets and how they live the values practiced by their healthcare organizations.

A Legacy of “Healing Health Care”

In 1989, the term “healing health care” was inspired at an event sponsored by Washoe Medical Center. During that event, the attendees, several hundred, focused on the future “Reno-Sparks 2000” which prioritized a healthier community and state  than the statistics indicated. Healing Health Care, as it was defined, was healthcare that “heals as well as treats.” It spoke to whole-person care and to social determinants of health.

As a result, there was a push to create an organization that would make whole-person care its mission to demonstrate how healing health care looked in practice.  The example Lee gave was the patient who comes to the ED with a broken leg, which is treated, but whose diabetes and alcoholism were ignored, even though these two conditions contributed to the injury.  Thus, the patient’s leg was “fixed,” but the patient was far from healed.

The Association of Healing HealthCare Projects (AHHC) was founded in Reno with a cohort of just a small group of community leaders, nurses and patients, with Leland Kaiser being our mentor and keeping us focused on a much larger picture than we might have been able to see. He recommended that we be a virtual organization that would not get caught up in the bureaucracy of being a non-profit. Instead, we would focus on proactive steps and practices that would render our organizations and neighborhoods healthier. The mission was to “heal ourselves, our relationships, and our communities.”

Lee challenged us to create an association that would exist to develop a system where healing was as important as treating, where curing and healing were different, and finally where wholeness mattered.

Building a Community of Healthcare Catalysts

AHHC had thirteen national conferences, and Lee spoke at each one. The event was about demonstrating healing health care without somehow defining it, and subsequently, limiting what it could be. The objective was always to show what healing health care feels like, looks like, and the results of healthcare that heals as well as cures.

Simply put, the mission was “To heal ourselves, our relationships, and our communities”  in the broadest sense of what the words may mean.

He cautioned that if we create a membership organization, we would automatically create non-members. He would ask us each time, “Is that what we want to do?” Thus, we existed without a budget, without an agenda beyond holding healing health care as a lofty ideal that had to be realized at the bedside. Each conference was sponsored by a hospital that had taken on the challenge of demonstrating their own concept of “healing health care.”

He wrote, “A Visionary is a self-fulfilling prophet. Don’t predict the future. Create it.” The events inspired us to take action, to proudly walk into the mass complexity of healthcare with humility, determination, and make the promise of healthcare that heals, as well as treats, a reality.

Putting the Healing in Healthcare

It’s hard for me to put into words all of the ways that Lee impacted our lives and the work of Healing HealthCare Systems. In June of 1992, we received a request from a non-profit mental health clinic in Georgia to provide music for them. We were on tour and stopped to visit Lee and his wife Betty in Colorado. We named our company in Lee’s home with his blessing, knowing that “healing health care” would take on many forms. Healing HealthCare Systems became our ultimate expression and commitment to creating environments that heal for each patient where they are.  And, we have never lost track of the core of this work being larger than a strategic plan, than any product or service.

As time went on, it seemed that it was taking forever to establish the work we felt was so critical for improved patient experiences and human outcomes. We would periodically call him, asking how long it would take for our work to be accepted and understood. He said, “Oh… you are a little ahead of where healthcare is now.” He would muse, “It will take about five years.” True to his prediction, five years later, we created our vision in The C.A.R.E. Channel. He knew about the dynamic space that human beings create around themselves and how powerful music is in designing and providing a place for the spirit to thrive, even when the body is still healing.

In Memory of a Friend and Healthcare Icon

We lost Lee on January 4th, 2018 at the age of 82. His daughter Leanne, and son, Kevin Kaiser will carry on his work. However, all of us in healthcare are tasked with carrying on the work of our mentors, leaders, and those who push us further in our mission to provide healing beyond healthcare.

Lee, we appreciate you so much. Thank you for the wisdom and insights you imparted that have continually pushed healthcare into a better future.

“The future is simply infinite possibility waiting to happen. What it waits on is human imagination to crystallize its possibility.”  – Leland R. Kaiser, Ph.D.


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