Both the soft and hard approaches to improving patient safety got attention at last week's NPSF Patient Safety Congress in New Orleans. But in the general attendance sessions, it was the softer side that took most of the spotlight.

Three of the four keynotes consisted of presentations that de-emphasized data or research in favor of bringing back the human touch.

The first softer-focused keynote came on Thursday, in the form of a play that followed the announcement of NPSF's new president.

The play, called "Bedside Manners," used mostly health care providers as actors, and sought to demonstrate some of the dysfunctional relationships that exist institutionally between doctors and nurses.

Co-written and presented by author Suzanne Gordon, the performance consisted of a series of vignettes and was based on true stories that alternated with narration from Gordon.

Gordon says she chose a play as her current medium of choice in order to increase the audience's receptiveness to change. "I thought that lecturing people about these issues would not be very productive," Gordon said. The providers in the audience "would get defensive. They would accuse you of doctor-bashing, nurse-bashing," she said.

Sitting there in New Orleans, watching the play with a room full of safety professionals was a bit like a "preaching to the choir" moment, but the performance seemed like something that could be effective with a more general audience of doctors, nurses and other hospital clinicians.

Later that day, the afternoon keynote consisted of a five-person panel that again highlighted the troubled working relationships in health care, as well as the physical dangers that health care workers face. The group discussed key points of a report from the NPSF's Lucian Leape Institute called "Through the Eyes Of the Workforce: Creating Joy, Meaning and Safer Health Care". The report, issued in March, describes the physical and psychological dangers facing health care workers and offers recommendations on how to alleviate those problems.

In an interview, Lucian Leape, M.D., chairman of the institute named after him and one of the panelists, said the report is designed to address "concerns that health care workers of all kinds … are all working harder and enjoying it less."

"Health care ought to be a happy type of work and people ought to take a lot of satisfaction because we do so many good things," Leape said. "But too many people are not finding their work satisfying and rewarding."

It's worth noting that SEIU Healthcare funded a roundtable that led to the report. The roundtable itself included representatives of a variety of groups, including health systems, medical schools and business schools.

The third part of the trio of humanity-focused keynotes was presented on Friday morning, May 10. Bridget Duffy, M.D., chief medical officer of technology company Vocera, argued that health care needs to take a step back from the rush toward technological innovation and make systematic changes that include the patient's feelings, fears and well-being.

She argued that the question health care executives should be asking themselves is, "What can our organization do to focus on the human experience of care?"

A fourth keynote sounded more data-driven than those, but I missed it in order to catch a late afternoon flight home. An attendee who was in line next to me both waiting for a cab at the hotel and to check in at the Southwest ticket counter said she caught the first 30 minutes of the scheduled 75-minute talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joe Hallinan. She said he explained some of the psychological reasons that people make mistakes and found it to be very enlightening.

I might have made a cognitive error in thinking that missing the last session of a conference on a Friday afternoon would not have negative consequences, and I plan to learn from that mistake.