Over the past few decades, we have seen a huge swing in our patients’ perceived quality of health care. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, individualism in health care has been taken to an extreme. Because of misinformation from non-medical sources, autonomy, which was expected to lead to a more medically educated public, has instead resulted in widespread mistrust of the medical establishment. With that, many if not all of us, in the health professions have become exhausted, challenged, and burned out to some extent on any given day. Often this is at the expense of our own mental health and, unfortunately, possibly has affected the care we deliver our patients.
Whatever the conclusion of the pandemic, the economic, social, medical, and psychological consequences will take a long time from which to recover. This time of transition has the potential to bring us into a more promising future. There is currently a demand in medicine for big-hearted leaders with a strong sense of social justice and the knowledge and ambition to effect constructive change in our fields.
I recently came across a business leadership article that discussed “our path forward” as leaders as we emerge from these recent crises. It discusses a philosophy that some of you may, or may not, have heard of, known as Ubuntu Leadership. Ubuntu is an African Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity to others.” It is often described as a reminder to us that, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” In fact, the word Ubuntu is just part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which literally means that a person is a person through other people. It is a nebulous concept of common humanity, oneness: humanity, you and me both. It transcends color and racial barriers. Ubuntu transcends geographical barriers, political barriers, religious barriers, gender barriers, etc. Ubuntu is a way of life.
This prompted me to think about the power of mastering this and utilizing this simple concept in my day-to-day practice of medicine as well as in business. Many of the characteristics of Ubuntu, such as humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, generosity, empathy, and others, are already core to our service to others and our patients.
When most of us started out in medicine, this altruistic belief created this “I want to save everyone” mentality. Somewhere along the way, being in the trenches has led some of us to become so fatigued that our sense of compassion has been dulled. As a result, there has been a bit of straying from that original path. This is evidenced by the recent increase in mental health awareness for clinicians as well as the mass exodus of providers from practice. What has not changed over the years is our patients’ reliance on us to advocate for them and understand them. So how do we get back there?
Going back to Ubuntu, here are some concepts that we can focus on as clinicians in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of not only our patients but with every person we encounter in our daily lives:
1. Humaneness. At its core, health care is about one thing: treating and healing people.
2. Empathy. Listening instead of labeling decreases our biases.
3. Compromise. Work with our patients to develop an appropriate plan of care together while educating them.
4. Learning. Culturally and academically.
5. Change. Adapting our practice to each patient as an individual.
6. Renewal. Offers an opportunity to renew commitment to our values.
7. Restorative justice. Helping our patients overcome disparities in health care.
8. Love. Healing through truly caring.
9. Spirituality. Respecting those with or without a common faith to incorporate more culturally competent care.
10. Hope. Rebirth of the idea that we can help.
There is so much more depth to Ubuntu. Ubuntu is not a complete solution, rather a place to start to find a certain type of peace within ourselves in all of this chaos. Perhaps reflecting on and incorporating these concepts can bring us to a point where we can develop relationships with our patients who harness our energy to be the healers we set out to be and need us to be for them.
Brandon Wolfenden is a physician assistant.
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