Patients are fearful. And why wouldn’t they be? The hospital environment is as foreign to patients as it is comfortable for us. For example, they fret about whether even the most standard of medical equipment will be used on them and cause unnecessary pain. Every one of their fears is a potential “what if” that can hamper the recovery process. And those fears are so real to them.
Fear is one of the least talked about topics associated with the patient experience. But that doesn’t mean fear doesn’t exist. After interviewing over 1,000 people about their fears regarding hospitals, healthcare, and doctors, the Patient Empathy Project, which I led, discovered that 96 percent of patients have at least some sort of fear about healthcare—a subject that we rarely broach with patients.
I also approached Avatar International, of Lake Mary, Florida, a leading research and analytics organization that administers patient and employee surveys, in an effort to find out what patients say about healthcare-related fears without being asked. Avatar scanned their patient surveys for comments relating to fear and then entered the text into Wordle, a word-cloud-generating service, to show me what words were most prominently associated with their fear.
The Wordle graphic, posted above, is plain scary. “Pain” is prominent, as are “room” and “hospital,” which speaks to the anxiety associated with the physical space where we deliver care. “Nurses,” “staff,” and “Dr.” are also conspicuous, which tells us that caregivers, too, can cause unease.
Interestingly, the word “night” is among the most frequently used words regarding healthcare fears. This makes me wonder if fear increases significantly at night, when it’s dark and patients are alone with their thoughts.
The Wordle is proof that, although we haven’t become totally comfortable with addressing the topic of fear with our patients, it exists for them and is remembered long after discharge. The fact that patients have fears isn’t surprising; our failure to address them is. I recently heard someone say, “If you want to know someone, find out what their hurt is.” So, do we really want to know our patients? Is it adequate to just treat their symptoms or disease? Or are they expecting something more from us?
And could it be that patients become disappointed when they don’t get what they seek from their caregivers?
Clearly, we aren’t there yet. My hope is that, in a future Wordle, the words “addressed” and “recognized” will be more prominent than “fear” and “pain.”
Perhaps it’s time we start asking, “What concerns you most today?”