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Kindness is core to working in healthcare: the clue is in the word

Kindness? Isn’t that all a bit motherhood and apple pie? Something with the whiff of touchy-feely psychobabble? Not quite the sort of thing that serious busy people need to get excited about. David Haslam explores why kindness isn't just something to insert in your organisational mission statement and then ignore.

It terrifies me to think of it, but a mere 48 years ago I was in the midst of my first job as a doctor. I was House Physician at the Warneford Hospital in Leamington Spa, a relatively small local hospital, now long demolished and replaced by a housing estate. One of my patients was a middle-aged woman I will call Mrs E., and who had been on the ward for a full week following a particularly damaging deliberate drug overdose.

A few days after her discharge, I received a handwritten note from her GP, a man who just happened to be a prolific medical journalist, but his writing on this occasion was brief, and to the point. “Dear Dr Haslam”, he wrote, “Thank you so much for the kindness you showed Mrs E. when she was in hospital last week. She really appreciated it. Yours Sincerely”. He probably took ten seconds to write those words, and doubtless he promptly forgot all about it.

Forty-eight years later I still treasure receiving that letter. Indeed, I still own that letter. I’ve no idea if I really was kind to Mrs E., or was just doing my job in a rather panicked new doctor sort of way.  But his bothering to write that letter truly was an act of kindness, of thoughtfulness, of humanity. The pleasure it brought me has stayed with me throughout my career as a simple and powerful reminder to thank people, to pass on praise, to be human. We don’t praise each other enough.

As a corporate anti-depressant, kindness can be remarkably cost-effective.

I tried to remember the lesson. A few years into my career as a GP, one of my patients had commented that the local X-Ray Department had been extraordinarily kind and efficient when she had been for a recent examination. And so I dropped a line to the Superintendent Radiographer to pass this praise on. I still have her reply.  She thanked me, said she had shared it with the team, and ended with the words “The whole team has been walking around all day with a huge smile on their faces.” As a corporate anti-depressant, kindness can be remarkably cost-effective. We don’t praise each other enough.

And at the other end of my career when I was Chair of NICE, I would try and talk about the importance of kindness, compassion, and humanity in almost every presentation and lecture that I gave. All too often people would come up afterwards, expressing surprise, and saying they had thought I would be talking much more in the scientific terms of evidence-based medicine. And I would always point out that this was precisely and exactly what I had been doing.

These attributes are not fluffy optional add-ons. They are the core of healthcare. There’s a clue in the word. And it’s in the core of most of our experience of life. As Maya Angelou memorably said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

These attributes are not fluffy optional add-ons. They are the core of healthcare. There’s a clue in the word.

In Kaleidoscope, kindness is central to the way we work. It has to be central to our mindset. That doesn’t make us push-overs, or any less rigorous and scientific in our approach. Perhaps anyone who thinks that kindness isn’t vitally important should really not be working in health or social care. Or is that just an unkind thought?

David Haslam12 November 2020


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