The novelist George Saunders delivered a convocation address in May for Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences that's become highly celebrated and widely disseminated. Saunders told the graduates that despite being poor from time to time, despite the occasional humiliation, despite the various follies he's committed during his lifetime, "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."
The chief experience officer of a hospital out West sent me a copy of the speech after reading my blog last Tuesday about Dignity Health's campaign promoting kindness in health care and in the world at large. "People who work in hospitals, from the top leadership on down, should read Saunders' words," she wrote. "Kindness isn't a passive, smile and do-no-harm thing. It's a hands-on, active way of life. Too many people are perfectly pleasant, but they don't go that extra step. They don't take the extra time to sit down next to a patient, hold her hand and really listen to what's on her mind."
OK, I know what you're thinking: "Extra time? In health care? Really? There are too many patients, too much paper work, too many fires to put out every minute of every day."
I understand, believe me. But as we all know, patient experience scores are playing a bigger role in CMS' reimbursement formulas; hospital leaders and their staff somehow have to make improving them a priority for the good of the bottom line, if nothing else.
One assertion in Saunders' speech is especially intriguing. "Some of this 'becoming kinder' happens naturally — with age," he told the graduates. "It might be a simple matter of attrition: As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really."
If that's true, the outlook should be bright. Baby boomers are now firmly in control of leadership and management positions in hospitals — from the board to the C-suite to patient floors. It would be terrific to believe that as they've gotten older, they're being kinder — actively so, as the reader urges — not only to patients and their families, but to their staff and to each other, as well. Kindness, after all, is the cornerstone of a healing environment.
You can read George Saunders' convocation address by clicking here.