When my elderly parents entered the medical system in the final years and months of their lives I learned something I had not known before. I learned how family members of those in care must become advocates for their loved ones, as once they have lost the ability to advocate for themselves they are reliant on others to advocate for them, to be their voices and ensure their needs are met. After my father’s lingering death in palliative care from lung cancer and my mother’s rapid demise in an ICU after a cerebral aneurysm I became aware not only of the fragility of the human condition but of how a massive system like medical care can forget that what is being dealt with are people, not just patients, and individuals, not just beds. The front line staff were, almost without exception, very good at remembering this and provided exceptional personal care, but it was in my brushes with hospital administration that I sensed this was on occasion forgotten, particularly as related to the language used to describe the patients – the people – in their care.
I recognize that every industry has its language – its jargon and lingo, and when one is dealing with automotive parts that is quite reasonable. When one is dealing with people, though, language that serves to see them as less than people – as objects – is dehumanizing and distancing, framing every discussion in a way that makes it sound as if you are dealing with parts, not people. One of those terms, and one that bothers me immensely, is “bed blocker”.
In hospital terms this is a person who has been treated and is ready to be released into care – perhaps a continuing care facility or rehabilitation – but due to a lack of those spaces remains in their hospital bed, taking up a spot that may be urgently needed for another incoming person requiring care. It is sadly not uncommon and truly creates difficult situations in our hospitals as they try to deal with people who should be released into other levels of care so they can admit new people, but who are unable to do so as space does not exist in other levels of care. I am empathetic to the problem and I agree it needs to be resolved – but as both a person who has been there with elderly parents and a communications professional I soundly reject the term “bed blocker” as a dehumanizing, distancing and demeaning term used to describe what are, fundamentally, people in need.
This would be why I was incensed to learn our new Minister of Health, Stephen Mandel, used the term in a recent interview when discussing the issue. I have not given a great deal of thought to Mandel’s new role, as I had always thought he served Edmonton well as their former mayor, and while I had some degree of misgivings about appointing an unelected member of the public to provincial cabinet I was quite willing to see how he performed – but when he chose to use a term that dehumanizes the very Albertans he wishes to represent I saw a bit red and went into a bit of a rage, because this is a bad start on the path to new leadership in Alberta health care.
As a person and someone who had two elderly parents in care I can tell you how I would have responded had anyone referred to my parents as “bed blockers”. The people in our hospitals in Alberta, particularly the elderly waiting to go into care facilities, helped to build this province. They are our history and we owe them a debt of gratitude, honour and respect. Not only do we owe them excellent care in their waning years, we owe them language that treats them with respect and as people, not objects. They are not “bed blockers” – they are the very grassroots of our province, and it is reprehensible to refer to them in terms that demean them in any regard.
Now, as a communications professional I can guarantee I would never advise a politician to refer to people who likely voted to support their party at one time in a way that dehumanizes them. I would suggest that no matter the terms used in “the industry” the tone set by a politician should always reflect dignity and respect when you are speaking of your constituents, the Albertans who built this province. I would advise that you have a responsibility to show empathy, understanding and honour to everyone, but especially to the most vulnerable because you will be judged on how you treat – and speak about – those groups the most. I would ban dehumanizing terms from the dialogue, and reframe it.
When Mandel said that the new Premier had given him the “instructions to deal with the bed blockers” he could have easily reframed it. I would have suggested something like: “the Premier has given me instructions on ways to manage the many Albertans in need of care who remain in hospital after they are able to be released and finding ways to ensure they receive the care they deserve while also allowing the admission of new Albertans requiring care”. Much longer to say than “bed blockers”, to be certain, but reflective of the respect these citizens have earned.
Perhaps there are those who think the issue of the terms used is a trifling one, but I disagree. How we frame a discussion – the terms we use – are our starting point and often reflect how we really think about the issue. I am gravely concerned to see a new Minister of Health using a term that objectifies the very people he now has the mandate to represent, and would suggest that he consider his words carefully as what he does – and what he says – will now be carefully watched and scrutinized, particularly when it comes to those in our province who are most vulnerable and most in need of respect.
Albertans are not objects. They are not “bed blockers”, and they deserve more than to be called terms that distance and dehumanize them. Just as I was once my parents’ advocate it is the role of every Albertan to advocate for those who can no longer advocate for themselves, and today I advocate banning the use of the word “bed blocker” and other dehumanizing terms when discussing health care in Alberta. I believe this change needs to come from the top, and so it resides squarely with our new Minister of Health and how he chooses to frame the dialogue. It is a new day in Alberta politics, and a new start with a new Premier and cabinet. Perhaps it is also time for a new and more respectful dialogue on health care, starting with how we refer to the patients – the people – relying on us for their very lives.