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Humankind documentary: Health care with kindness

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Checking up on patients
Nurse practitioner Alison Romstad listens to her patient Ione Erickson's heart.
Lorna Benson | MPR News 2014

Patients often complain about rushed doctor visits and, of course, the cost of medical services. But a number of studies in recent years highlight a different concern: whether as a patient you actually experience kindness when receiving health care — and many say they don’t. 

Being treated with basic courtesy and compassion, especially while undergoing medical distress, was rated in one nationwide survey as the most important factor when a patient chooses a provider.

In this Humankind documentary, we examine that challenge, from the perspective of both health care professionals — often serving in a stressful environment — and patients who come for help.

And whether patients are treated as human beings looms large. The vast majority of patients, according to the survey, would switch doctors if treated unkindly.

You’ll hear stories of a commitment to kindness as practiced in several real-world clinical venues.

We visit a remarkable community health center, Northern Nevada Hopes, which takes care of 12,000 patients in Reno, and many are low-income. The CEO, Sharon Chamberlain, tells her unusual story of being formerly homeless and learning firsthand the pain that comes with being “invisible”. We include moving accounts of patients who’ve come to view the clinic as a supportive sanctuary as their lives are on the mend.

Patient Christopher Harris said, "I have never been to any clinic or hospital where the medical staff was so compassionate, and so concerned about your whole entire well-being, and just not the situation that you’re in."

We listen to nurses in the Twin Cities who are drawn to their profession by compassion for patients. A nursing educator relates the experience of her powerful encounter with a frail patient who was hemorrhaging and who asked if he was dying. But providers also reveal the difficulties of remaining emotionally “present” in a high-stress medical setting

Critical care nurse Bridget Gehrz said, "In general I feel that there’s a lack of kindness in the world. A lot of people come into the hospital having huge stress, financial and life burdens that we don’t know anything about."

David Freudberg is executive producer of the Humankind series, in association with WGBH Boston. 

Funded by the Communitude Initiative at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and by the Humankind program fund.