Opinion: Working toward equity starts with human kindness

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We all know a person’s health can be deeply affected by the circumstances in which they live. The ability to breathe clean air, live in safe housing, play and exercise outside, and eat healthy food varies from one community to another. In vulnerable areas, poor health often is connected to poverty, discrimination, homelessness, lack of access to quality education and jobs, and hazardous environments.

Unfortunately, for many people this means facing ongoing health challenges, as well as shorter lives overall. Research shows people in communities with inequitable distribution of opportunities are more likely to die before age 75.

Even at the bedside, the ways in which healthcare workers meet and treat each patient can inadvertently build larger barriers to care. Studies have shown that implicit bias is present in numerous patient-caregiver interactions—from the way clinicians record notes in electronic health records, to the words chosen to describe a patient’s condition. When terms like “noncompliant,” “aggressive,” “agitated” or “uncooperative” are used to describe a patient, it can negatively affect the care they receive in the future.

A 2022 study in Health Affairs uncovered implicit bias in EHRs, noting that Black patients were more than twice as likely as white patients to have their behavior and history characterized in negative terms. Furthermore, the study found that patients on Medicaid, who had comorbidities or were unmarried, were more likely to have negative terms written into their health record.

Too many patients across the country simply aren’t receiving the type of healthcare they need and deserve. Millions of people are unhealthy or die due to factors that are beyond their control. Addressing the systemic barriers that exacerbate health inequities should start with practicing a simple, yet powerful concept that can light a path toward health justice and equity: human kindness.

What is human kindness? It is purposeful, voluntary action undertaken with sensitivity to the needs or desires of another person and actively directed toward fostering their well-being. In the context of healthcare, it means building meaningful connections by actively listening to patients, establishing trust, offering compassion and responding with empathy.

Often, if patients don’t adhere to a care plan, it’s not because they don’t want to be healthy. It’s because they are focusing on stressors that healthcare providers don’t typically address, yet negatively impact health—like maintaining housing

or access to food. If we want patients to follow our plans, we need to uncover their social needs and help them connect with the support services needed. If we add human kindness, there is an even better likelihood of success.

Doctors who take the time to listen, connect and reassure patients can not only reduce their stress, but also let them feel more in control of their treatment and more knowledgeable about how to take care of their health over the long term.

This might sound like a soft and squishy concept to some, but decades of research supports it. When we deliver care in this fashion, science shows patients experience faster healing, reduced pain, increased immune function, lowered blood pressure and decreased anxiety.

Work is already being done to fortify healthcare with kindness. The recently launched Lloyd H. Dean Institute for Humankindness & Health Justice builds upon the legacy of the former CommonSpirit Health CEO after whom it’s named to address the systems and barriers that keep Americans from living their best lives. The institute’s mission is to leverage the power of human kindness to treat some of the root causes of poor health.

Kindness goes even further at the macro level: It is an essential part of the commitment healthcare providers make to their communities. To deliver truly great care for all people, we must acknowledge our collective humanity and remind ourselves that we all deserve respect. 

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