Breaking down the binaries

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Shannon McIntyre
Shannon McIntyre

A few weeks ago, I had the great honor of attending TEDMED, the medical offshoot of the well-known TED conference series. Throughout the course of three and a half intensive days, I found all my assumptions about the way we approach healthcare and aging radically challenged. But one theme appeared again and again: the need to leave behind the binary descriptions we rely on so heavily to understand the experience of health and caring.

Healthy, and sick.

We have a tendency to think of someone as either healthy – and therefore without an urgent need for our healthcare or senior care system – or sick – and therefore high-cost and in a state of inevitable decline. This is a convenient way to view the world, especially since our healthcare institutions are built almost exclusively to meet the need of urgent, not proactive, care.

But this is not how the body works. Danny Hills, chairman and co-founder of Applied Minds and also professor of research medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, argued that the body is always fighting somewhere in the middle of health and sickness. We are never one or the other – we are in a perpetual struggle between the two. It's high time for our institutions to start reflecting this reality.

Expert, and novice.

The binary opposition between someone who is an expert on a topic and someone who is receiving that expert's opinion is well-known in the world of healthcare and aging. But America Bracho, the Director of Latino Health Access, vehemently rebuked this concept. We have a tendency to listen to those who have multiple M.D. and Ph.D. labels, or those who are policymakers. But it's really the people who are impacted, the people in the communities, who should be listened to as the true experts.

Doctor, and patient.

The doctor-patient relationship is perhaps the most sacred binary in healthcare today. And TEDMED speakers went at this natural assumption like a pack of wolves. One of the most passionate voices in this discussion was Sally Okun, a former nurse who has devoted her life to patient advocacy. We so often discount, or choose not to record, a patient's story – yet up to 90% of the time, that very story is what can deliver the disease diagnosis.

 

These are all different manifestations of the same tendency to view things in black and white terms.  But the world is not black and white. And relationships between people should not be black and white, whether in a hospital, senior living facility, or community setting. Perhaps the simplest first step is this: commit yourself, and your organization, to empathy and listening. Even the smallest change can make a huge difference.

Shannon McIntyre is the corporate communications director at Intel-GE Care Innovations™.

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