Dignity comes from the Latin word dignitas, which means worthiness. As a definition, dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” It has been invoked in several areas, though one area in particular that seems to stand out is healthcare. As a doctor, it is important to remember that every patient wants to be treated with dignity. Treating patients with dignity, respect, and compassion is at the core of good care.
Regardless of its widespread nature, dignity is a rather difficult term to pinpoint. In the world of medicine, dignity is like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as a doctor, you have chosen a career that involves providing necessary care to those in need and treating them with great respect. On the other hand, the expectations that come with the responsibilities of being a healthcare professional can be extremely high and even the smallest mistakes can be unforgiveable. So what does dignity mean as a doctor? It means striving to offer quality care all the while respecting patients’ thoughts, concerns, feelings, and experiences. It means your patient is never “just a cancer patient” or “just a glaucoma patient”. Dignity means your view of the patient is never limited by his or her condition.
What does it mean to have dignity as a patient? Hearing the words ‘patient dignity’, one may be inclined to assume demonstrating to the patient that they are, in fact, worthy of honor and respect. Yet, this term carries with it several other practical implications – acceptance, consideration, safety, acknowledgement, and liability. More specifically, acceptance of one’s identity, consideration of one’s beliefs, safety of one’s life, acknowledgement of one’s feelings and concerns, and liability for one’s actions. Dignity for patients means considering their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs in the clinical setting. The emotional needs of patients refer to your actions when it comes to communicating, listening, making decisions, and expressing empathy to your patients. Moreover, good communication builds upon solid doctor-patient relationships. The physical needs of patients refer to your approach in enhancing and maintaining their dignity. For instance, when a patient comes in with troubling symptoms, improving their experience and increasing their satisfaction is a sense of dignity that they are entitled to. Lastly, the spiritual needs of patients refer to your approach in maintaining compassion and respect throughout the entire patient experience. Patients with terminal illnesses or those who feel as if they have lost their identity, tend to seek guidance from healthcare professionals. Spiritual needs do not simply reflect the scope of religion, but rather involves understanding patients’ perspectives and preserving their dignity.
A recent case study was conducted among one ward, its staff, and patients in order to determine the impact of patient dignity within a hospital setting. The study was performed on 24 patients, all within the ages of 34 and 92. 15 men and 9 women were surveyed. 12 patients who had stayed in the ward for a minimum of 2 days were interviewed after being discharged and the other 12 patients were interviewed during their stay at the ward. Out of the wards 26 staff members, 13 of them were interviewed and 6 nurses were intentionally selected for an interview. The data collected involved the thoughts, opinions, experiences, and attitudes of 24 patients, 13 ward staff members, and 6 nurses. Following a thorough analysis, findings revealed patients were vulnerable to loss of dignity at the hospital and staff behavior could have an immense impact on whether patient dignity is undermined or lost. It was found that patient factors (comfort, value, privacy, health, and more) all attributed to how patients felt about their surrounding environment. Rude staff members and threatened privacy are merely two examples of an environment where patients felt lack of dignity. Staff members, on the other hand, helped to promote dignity by offering privacy, making patients feel comfortable and making them feel valued. However, it was patients’ older age and health status that left them vulnerable to loss of dignity. It was exactly in how they perceived themselves and the attitudes of those around them that made them susceptible to feeling as they did.
Above all, patients need caring doctors. Caring doctors are competent, honest and trustworthy, keep their knowledge and skills up to date, act with integrity, and maintain solid patient and colleague relationships. Moreover, they protect the rights to privacy and dignity, by treating every patient as an individual. They strive to ensure that all patients are cared for and supported, regardless of their medical condition or disability. Whatever the field of medicine that you are working in, it has been demonstrated that while dignity is a significant trait to have as a doctor, it is equally important that you:
- Are compassionate and considerate of patients’ needs;
- Interact with patients all the while practicing medicine to better prepare to meet patient needs and demands;
- Possess a good and strong work ethic;
- Demonstrate professionalism and constantly reinforce your professional skills;
- Are prepared and put in much needed effort in order to tackle the challenges that come with the practice of medicine;
- Are constantly determined to meet your goals and objectives;
- Are up to date with the latest medical news and trends and apply the new information to relevant areas for advancement within your field;
- Ooze confidence in the way you communicate with others and listen to / respect patients and colleagues alike;
- Are approachable and available to patients and colleagues alike in times of necessity;
- Act with humility and confidence;
- Are prepared to clarify and justify your decisions and actions;
- Are passionate about your profession and willing to constantly apply yourself and learn in order to better your career;
- Are a lifelong learner;
Being a doctor is more than just providing quality care. It is also about promoting patient equality and maintaining patient dignity, all the while easing patients’ suffering. In the clinical setting, dignity is focused on three key aspects: respect, privacy, and autonomy. The fact of the matter is that medical practices and hospitals can be frightening to most patients and with countless exams and procedures, the environment can prove to be overwhelming. Exposure to such settings may poke at and subject patients to vulnerability, more specifically, their dignity. When a patient’s self-worth and self-respect is put in jeopardy, it can be rather difficult for them to open up. As a doctor, the viewpoint on patient dignity can be enhanced if you help to preserve it. For instance, becoming acquainted with the patient as an individual or being sensitive to their circumstances are just some of the ways in which you can unlock the path towards open communication. Dignity is also associated with autonomy. The life cycle indicates that a child is cared for by an adult until they become of an age when they can take care of themselves. After this time, the cycle is repeated. Among older patients, the cycle becomes blurry. It can be hard for individuals, especially those who have been living for a longer period of time, to be dependent on someone else – especially healthcare professionals.
With all patients, every decision that you make and action that you take has the power to strengthen, preserve, undermine or diminish one’s dignity. In a fast-paced environment such as a hospital setting, it can be challenging to take the time to acknowledge and address each patient as an individual. In fact, it is often noted that patient burnout is one of the obstacles that challenge effective patient advocacy. However, when it comes to having dignity as a doctor and preserving patient dignity, it takes dedication, knowledge, confidence, passion, and willingness. These are the same traits that make up a caring doctor and by striving to see each patient as an individual; you can keep that dignity intact.