Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Customer Service

I Am Your Patient's Family Member...Can We Talk?

(I wrote the following letter during a period in which I spent a month, 24/7, with my mother in the hospital. In it, I trust that you can glean lessons in customer service, no matter what your profession.)

“Nurse…oh, Nurse…

May I talk to you for just a moment?

I know you’re busy. I overheard you and another nurse when I walked past the nurses’ station, talking about you were short-staffed because they had pulled some of your help to another floor. About that time, someone rang their call light, and after you answered it, you said to no one in particular, ‘There’s only one of me!’ And when you’ve come into my mother’s room today, your face has shown the stress you’re apparently under.

As I’ve sat here by my mother’s bedside for the past 27 days and counting, I’ve seen that yours is not an easy job. I can empathize with the fact that it’s hard to juggle everything and meet everyone’s needs. My profession is like that, too. I’ve tried to be understanding.

But Nurse…that’s my little mama. And she doesn’t understand. She’s an eighty year old with advanced Alzheimer’s, you know. Now she has multiple infections, and she’s very sick.

You see, Nurse, I’m my mother’s only child. My mother’s always been there for me and cared for me. Now it’s my turn.

So I sit by her side and I try to see that she’s treated with dignity. Right now, I can’t leave here to go back home and work at my own profession. This is my job. I want to do it diligently, because I love her.

So won’t you stay just a moment and let me share with you some experiences we’ve had here and their impact on us?

I Want to Help

When you come onto your shift, you sometimes bustle into the room, checking IV’s, examining your patient…busy about the tasks of patient care. I sit by her bedside, where I’ve been for the past weeks. She’s in a deep sleep, but I’m your customer, too.

When you stop long enough to look me in the eye, smile, and introduce yourself, I feel comforted. Now I know the name of the person I can call on if I need to for the next 12 hours. A 45-second interaction…just a moment of relationship building… buys you my confidence and allows me to relax and trust you.

When I ask questions about what you’re doing, I’m not questioning how you’re doing your job. Your tone in response to my questions seems to suggest you may have taken it that way.

I’m trying to learn. What I’m really looking for is knowledge about how to help your patient and my mother.

If you’ll take a moment to educate me about what to look for, I’ll be glad to be your eyes and ears when you can’t be here. And when I tell you what I’ve been noticing, it would feel good if you acknowledged what I’ve told you. I’m not a nurse, but I’m an intelligent and caring person. Won’t you please make me feel like your valued partner in my mother’s healthcare?

It's Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It

I totally understand your frustration when you try to get the spoon through my mother’s clenched teeth to get her to take her medicine, to eat, or to drink. And I don’t know if I could keep my cool in the tedious job of trying to accomplish the eleventh IV stick after multiple infiltrations of practically non-existent veins.

But the reality is, these tasks are a necessary part of caring for your patients. Calling my mom “Sweetie” using a loud, irritated voice sends a not-so-mixed message. When there’s a difference between what you say and how you say it…the “how” speaks most loudly every time.

Nurse, I know that you and I both wonder why she fights us when we try to get her meds down her. But yelling at a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s, asking her, “Why won’t you take your medicine?” is a pretty futile communication. She doesn’t know why. She has the mind of a one- or two-year-old.

I Try Not to Complain

I’m not a complainer. I try to take things in stride and think how the other person might be feeling. But I don’t feel I can end our conversation without talking with you about something that’s bugged me for three days now.

Do you remember the other day when we were struggling to get my mother to swallow her medicine? This was the morning after she had pulled out her NG tube. We had managed to get ice cream plus pill in her mouth, only to have her reach into her mouth, retrieve that lump…the pill…from the “defective” ice cream, and throw it onto the floor. You picked the soggy pill up off the floor and offered it to her again.

My mouth dropped open! Customer service is important, but infection control is critical.

Unfortunately, things got worse. When I shared my concerns with you, you became defensive and said that you did it because I looked like I wanted you to! You also explained your harsh tone that day like this:

‘If you want to hear my side of this…before I came in here, I had been in three patients’ rooms, and they were not there. No one had told me where my patients were going. The night nurse was trying to stop me to take report on a patient who was not mine, while I was trying to take care of my own patients. That patient’s assigned nurse wouldn’t get off the phone long enough to take it. She’s always on the phone. So by the time I got in here, I was already stretched as tight as I could stretch.’

Nurse, I hadn’t mentioned this to you before, but in my “other job” I work with healthcare organizations to improve workplace morale, customer service, and employee loyalty. So I am well aware from my conversations with nurses over the past 20 years that when you’re experiencing job stress and teamwork problems, it affects your service to all of your customers. However, I’m sharing these thoughts with you, not as a psychologist and workplace consultant, but as a family member. I just want to help you and this hospital improve.

You’ve probably seen the scientific data about complaints, about how people who complain are much more likely to continue to do business with your hospital, especially if they get a caring and prompt response. It’s not easy for me to talk with you about all of this, Nurse. I could have just kept it to myself, resolved never to come to the hospital again, and told all my friends about the experiences.

So back to the pill-on-the-floor incident. While I realize that you were under stress that day, it would really have helped if you had taken responsibility for what happened, apologized, and tried to make things better. Blaming your teammates or me (your customer) only makes this situation feel worse to me.

Finally, Nurse, May I Introduce My Mother?

You know her as “325”. You see a tiny snapshot of her 80 years. You describe her to me and I know you write in her chart words like, “combative”, “difficult”, “uncooperative”.

You didn’t know her before the Alzheimer’s Disease took away her reasoning ability. You haven’t met the hundreds of children to whom she devoted her life. You haven’t met the adults who, today, still talk about their fifth-grade teacher who not only taught them reading, but helped them to believe in themselves.

You didn’t meet the pastor’s wife who loved and cared for people when they were going through pain as she is now. You don’t know that this is a woman who would never say a hurtful word to anyone. You didn’t witness her courage when her husband died of cancer at the age of 38 and she was left to be both mother and father to me, her only child.

So please, Nurse…allow me to introduce my mom. The person you see in this bed is not the person she really is. She’s not just the difficult patient in 325. She’s a woman with a long history of caring for others. Won’t you please keep that in mind while you’re caring for her?

I Believe You're a Good Nurse With a Good Heart

Nurse, I’m sorry for making you cry, really I am. I didn’t mean to hurt you.

What? You don’t want me to think that you’re a bad nurse? And you really care about your patients?

You know, I do believe that. I believe that you went into the profession of nursing because you really care about people. I know that what you’re experiencing every day here in your workplace affects your ‘patience with your patients.’

You see, a good nurse who lets a bad situation control her emotions gives bad service…and her patients and their families pay the price for it.

In the past three plus weeks, I’ve gained a renewed passion to make a difference in the work atmosphere of hospitals. That’s one reason I took this step of talking with you today. I hope that our conversation, difficult as it was for both of us, has raised your awareness of little things that make a big difference.

I value and respect what you do every day to help others heal. You are a critical part of my mom’s healthcare team.

What you do matters.

It matters to me, and it matters to my little mama.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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