Thinking like a social worker

…any questions? Yes. I have plenty.

Questions about power from my trip to the ER

on February 21, 2013

I previously mentioned that I spent a portion of my holidays in the ER.  Inside the hospital I “was seen” by at least nine different medical staff, each for only a moment at a time.  At least two said they would call within the next week to share my test results, but I was stood up.  The only time I heard from the hospital was the billing department confirming my information a month later.  I eventually called about my test results and was told I couldn’t get records over the phone (HIPPA – blah, blah, blah).  Instead, I needed to send in a release of information with (additional) billing information to cover $0.50 per page for my records.  Of course, once I receive my records, I will have no idea what they say, so that’s another trip/call to a doctor to translate.

I am very lucky that I am healthy and do not have to deal with the health care system on a regular basis.  All of the hoops made me cry from frustration.  Being at the hospital was a very low-point in my life, and the hospital offered me the minimum required of them (which I recognize may have saved my life).  The hospital gave me want I needed, but not what I wanted.  A simple phone call would have changed my whole experience.

How often do we as service professionals do the minimum required of us?  

There are so many hoops for our clients to jump through.  We have to say, “Please fill out these forms and come back in three weeks” OR “We can’t help you right now, try this number” OR “There is a waiting list” (without the bandwidth to call people back).  Customer service is placed on the service professionals, even though the system is rigged against a positive experience for clients.  In the end, it doesn’t matter what type of experience a client has, because they need the service.  (I would not have been at the hospital if I did not need to be.)   They can complain, but they may not have anywhere else to go.

We hold the power.  As social workers we don’t like to think about the power we hold over others, but it is often the basis of the relationship with the individuals we serve.  Power is one of the first things we discuss in school, and it is an issue that I will always struggle with.  As social workers we can and should treat others with respect while they are with us, make sure they have the information needed to make informed decisions, and follow-up to ensure a smooth transition and closure.  This is what I wanted from the hospital.

Does information and good customer service shift the power dynamics in our relationships with others?

I am not sure.  Of course, treating others with dignity and respect is a core social work value.  It seems more like the human thing to do than a technique to empower others.  I do think that information is key to empowerment – information is power.  If a person has a better understanding of the available options they can make choices for themselves – that’s whats it’s all about.  My issue is that  social safety net systems are set up for emergencies (people’s low points), so they often lack choices and space for consumer input.  A service professional can work towards empowerment on an individual level, but both the client and worker may feel powerless within the larger system.

Does shifting the dynamics in an individual relationship matter when the system so skewed?

Let me know your thoughts.  Multiple brains are better than one.

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