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Critical thinking key to solving healthcare conundrum

June 11th, 2014

by Lynn McVey

I love everything John F. Kennedy. I'm Irish-American so it's the law. On June 11, 1962 at Yale University's graduation, President Kennedy gave the commencement speech. I happened upon it this week. I became jealous as I read how creative, eloquent and intellectually written it was. I was stunned by one paragraph in particular. Allow me to modernize and paraphrase.

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, but the myth of our descendants. Too often we accept someone else's interpretation of facts. We enjoy the comfort of their opinion without the discomfort of our own critical thinking." In short, President Kennedy pointed his finger at Yale's elite graduates and challenged them not to be too lazy to swim upstream.

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In public, most of us are too insecure to say, "I disagree." At meetings, I've witnessed the person with the truth stay silent as the person with the myth gains consensus of the group. Afterwards when I ask why the knowledgeable one didn't speak up, it's always the same response. Their hands go up in the air. Their shoulders shrug. And they say something surrendering like "Why bother?" and "It's not worth it." But I believe that's not true. I believe they're simply too lazy to swim upstream.

The Critical Thinking Community offers this explanation of critical thinking: People who think critically, consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, emphatically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and socio-centric tendencies. They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers--concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess and improve thinking.

Critical thinkers like Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Henry Ford and Nelson Mandela are great examples of thinkers who were keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking. They spent a lot of time truly thinking about how to make changes that will progress humankind. They didn't accept the status quo. They questioned authority. They weren't seeking popularity.

Who is not a critical thinker? I'm sure you work alongside one or two in your hospital. It's the employees who live as if excuses truly exist. It's the manager who is not embarrassed to claim, "This is how we've always done it." It's the leader who strives to "fly below the radar" and enjoys being there. It's the "yes men" surrounding the boss. Many common traits identify who is not a critical thinker.

I believe it takes more work, more reading, more writing, more fact checking, more thinking, more data analysis, more calculating, more research and more debate to be a critical thinker. Leave your emotions at home. Lose your personal opinion. You are part of this healthcare system, therefore you created part of this mess. You must aggressively participate in being part of the healthcare solution. The American patient needs you to disrupt and disagree with the status quo. As Bob Geldorf said to 45 rock'n'rollers before they recorded "We Are the World": "Leave your ego at the door."

You do not know the answer. Nobody knows how to fix this outrageously complex and complicated mess in our hospitals. Nobody. If someone claims to have the healthcare answer, you'll be listening to the myth. So let's agree that we should start by becoming evidence-based, critical thinkers so that we stand half a chance at correcting this giant mistake called the U.S. healthcare system. Don't be lazy. Manage with metrics, facts and evidence. Surrender. You do not have the answer. Yet.

Lynn McVey serves as chief operating officer of Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, an acute care, 230-bed hospital in New Jersey.

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