safetySafety should always be the number one priority. But what happens when compassion and courtesy are trumped in our pursuit of efficiency?

Picture this.

I was in a hotel room recently. I’d just taken a shower and stepped out of the bathroom, covered only in a towel, to get some clothes out of my bag. All of a sudden, the door to my room opened. No knock. No nothing. It just opened and there was the housekeeper staring at me. We locked eyes for a moment, both of us stunned and mortified, before she quickly apologized and left the room.

Now, this experience is pretty rare in hotels. Usually housekeeping staff will knock and announce themselves first before using their master key to enter a guest room. But in healthcare? This sort of thing happens all the time. So the question is why? Why do most healthcare workers (non-clinical and clinical) walk in when someone is half naked in a hospital room? The reasoning is usually well we do it for your safety…we’re afraid you’re going to fall…we’re just doing our job…etc. But therein lies the problem. We use these red flags called safety or efficiency and yet we sacrifice courtesy, compassion and dignity along the way.

A few years back, a hospital chief financial officer told me about a hospital experience she’d had following a bad car accident when she was in college. Because of her injuries, she needed assistance to do the simplest of tasks, including using the restroom. A nurse helped her to the commode and then closed the room door (not the bathroom door) so she could get to the patient when she needed assistance returning to her bed. As she was using the facilities, a male housekeeper with a mop and bucket entered her room and started cleaning the floors. Mortified, the woman said, “Excuse me! Do you not see me here? Can you please come back later?” The man replied, “Yes, I see you, but no I can’t come back. You’re my last room of the day.”

And he continued to mop right around her.

Why do we sacrifice dignity in our pursuit of productivity, efficiency, and safety? Why can’t we work toward both? Why can’t it be a “yes, and” situation. YES, we’re always focused on patient safety as our number one priority AND we will ensure that safety is delivered with compassion, dignity, expertise, and efficiency. Certainly, in emergency situations, safety trumps most everything, but most situations aren’t a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of taking a few minutes to make sure your dignity and compassion are in check while you do your safety/efficiency/productivity.

In my case, I’m guessing the housekeeper must have seen me bring most of my luggage and work gear to my car earlier that morning and then assumed I had checked out. But she obviously didn’t see me return with just a carry bag so I could shower and freshen up before heading to the airport. Regardless, she entered my room without permission and both of us suffered the embarrassing consequences. She was trying to be efficient, but I guarantee that after this incident, she will never NOT knock again.