How I Got Into Improving Healthcare Delivery

January 24, 2018

When I learned I needed open heart surgery to save my life, it was a wake-up call. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that my subsequent intersection with healthcare would be life-changing in other ways. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. After barely making it out of the hospital alive—yes, I came close to being one of those statistics in the “preventable medical errors” database—I became impassioned to join the efforts to improve healthcare in America.

I saw first-hand how fast a problem can develop for a patient, and how slow the response can be – especially in the middle of the night. Around midnight, just hours after surgery, a slightly built, soft-spoken woman bustled into my room. She identified herself as a tech who had been assigned to remove my IV pain pump. “The nurse will be in with your pain pills in a little while,” she said as she slipped out of my room.

But no one came.

I pushed my call bell, and an ashen-faced nurse stuck her head in the door. “We just discovered that the surgery team forgot to write an order for oral pain meds,” she blurted. “Don’t worry, we’ll call the physician who’s on call.” And without waiting for a response the frantic nurse disappeared into the darkened hallway.

By 1:00 my pain was intensifying. I began to squirm as I frantically pushed my call bell. Finally the nurse reappeared with a young, blond woman holding a washcloth. “I’m having trouble getting anyone to answer my page,” the older nurse told me. “This is Lindsey. She’s a new nurse who will stay with you until the doctor arrives.”

“I’m really uncomfortable,” I pleaded. “How much longer will it be?”

“I’ll page the doctor again,” she said with a sigh.

Lindsey began to apply the cold washcloth to my forehead. It helped for a minute. But the pain was unrelenting. By 2 am I was writhing uncontrollably. Lindsey and I both had tears streaming down our faces.

Sometime after 3am the doctor finally showed up. By then excruciating pain wracked my body.

“Where have you been?” I sobbed. “Why didn’t you answer your pages?”

“I was taking care of patients on another floor,” the doctor said indifferently. “We’re short staffed tonight,” he added, shrugging his shoulders to indicate there wasn’t anything he could do about it. “We did the best we could,” he concluded as he turned his back and walked out of the room.

The consequence of this “best we could do” level of care was a buildup of fluid in my chest –1.6 liters under my left lung and 1.9 liters on my right side. The compression on my newly repaired heart drove the beat to 180 and left me gasping for air. I spent 10 days in the ICU having long needles stuck into my back to drain the fluid.

My career as an organizational psychologist helping leaders and teams in other industries to function at their best had taught me that change was possible. I recognized the signs that the team who had taken care of me had succumbed to ‘learned helplessness’ – the mistaken belief there was nothing they could do to improve their performance.

I felt called to research, design, and launch a program to empower leaders and staff in healthcare organizations. It’s now been used in major hospitals and medical centers for more than a dozen years. Hundreds of studies have proven the program is highly effective in addressing the biggest issues in healthcare today: patient safety; staff engagement; and a healthy bottom line. That program is the basis of my book – PROPEL to Quality Healthcare.

The six principles of PROPEL—Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy, and Legacy—have provided thousands of healthcare providers the tools they needed to make significant change. They’ve discovered how to get past formerly impenetrable roadblocks and achieve positive outcomes—for themselves, their teams, their organizations and their patients.

RESOURCES that will help you learn to PROPEL performance in your organization:

The best-selling book PROPEL to Quality Healthcare is available on Amazon:

The PROPEL website offers videos and other valuable information:

Contact Dr. Muha to discuss his consulting or speaking to your organization:

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