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Are You a Supervisor? I'm Talking to You!

Here is a tidbit that should wake up anyone who has a pulse: According to a market analysis for a new product about to be introduced into the health care system, medical errors kill between 44,000 and 98,000 people per year in this country. To put that into perspective, the 98,000 high end of this estimate approximates the number of deaths that occur each year from highway accidents (43,450), breast cancer (42,300), and AIDS (16,500) combined.

As a person who manages people and pro grams, I appreciate that errors happen. As one who has also studied, designed, and implemented quality control systems, I also appreciate that even the best system cannot eliminate all errors. However...

Anyone (like myself) who has ever been in a hospital would be inclined to note that "There are errors, and there are errors." Systems fail, machines break, people get stressed and overworked, complications emerge that no one was prepared for, and--errors result, period.

Circumstances of these types give rise to errors of the first kind. Tragic though they can be, these errors will always happen--at least to some extent. It is errors of the second kind that dismay and disturb. I'm talking about errors that can be traced back to people who just don't care.

One of my "buttons" concerns people who take care of people but don't care about people. Speaking from first-hand experience, I've seen hospital staff miss obvious indications of problems. I've seen errors occur simply because the practitioners didn't care. I've seen negligence and insensitivity that have astonished me--especially since the practitioners were involved in the healing arts.

I've seen hospital staff joke about patients, tend to their social lives ahead of the needs of their patients, and treat patients as if they were a chore.

Do errors occur when people like this are involved? Of course they do.

Can such errors lead to the loss of life? You bet they can.

Can errors like this be minimized and even avoided? Easily

If there is one profession that I have held to the highest standard, it is the medical profession. Apart from other relevant considerations, such as oaths, trust, and ethics, the bottom line is that the stakes are so high. Mistakes can mean death. Moreover, the mistreatment and dehumanization of a person can substantially compromise an already ill person's ability to survive a difficult health problem.

Because the consequences of errors in the medical profession are so dramatic, it is easy for me to make a compelling case against indifference in that profession. I suspect that most readers would agree with my concern.

But what about our profession? Can a similar story be told about the consequences of being an indifferent practitioner in environmental health? If it couldn't, I wouldn't be writing this piece. Moreover, if I can get you to go along with me on this one, I will have achieved something quite significant with this brief editorial.

I have reported on previous occasions that as we have continued to study this great profession, we have found troubling signs of indifference among our people as well. Too many people simply treat their work as a job. These practitioners tend to be devoid of the passion, commitment, and belief that are needed to move beyond satisfactory performance to exemplary performance--at which errors occur in far fewer numbers.

Since so much of our work takes place in that unseen world of prevention, we will probably never know if the consequences of our errors even come close to the disastrous consequences of errors in medical care. The fact that we don't know, however, should be catalyst enough--especially for those of you who are managers in this profession--to take any sign of indifference seriously.

We are environmental health. We are the centurions entrusted to act on behalf of the population we serve, whether that population is a community, the employees of a company, a customer base for our business, or future generations not yet born. We have the responsibility to understand environmental dangers to human health and to design and take the measures necessary to prevent exposure to those dangers.

To do our jobs as competently (and thus as error-free) as possible, we need to be driven to understand the field for which we are responsible and to act when appropriate to prevent problems from happening or to solve problems once loose. We also need to appreciate the people we are in service to and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

But you already know this. I'm not telling you anything new. In fact, to some extent, I am preaching to the wrong audience; for as members of NEHA, you've already demonstrated that you care and that you are trying to stay up on your professional field.

Let me therefore talk more directly to you- especially if you are a manager of environmental health employees.

If you are a manager, is it not a part of your job and responsibility to motivate and inspire? How many of your staff are members of NEHA? What are you doing to encourage them to take the important step of becoming immersed in the education and excitement that come from being a member of one's professional society?

We know from the research we conduct that many of you are frustrated by the indifference that exists in too many environmental health operations. We also appreciate that many of you face difficult obstacles in raising the morale of your staff, such as limited pay scales, modest working environments, and marginal support from your leaders and supervisors.

But you are a manager, a person to whom others look for leadership, guidance, and even cheerleading. If you took the time to rally your troops and convey the enthusiasm that you surely have for this profession and what it stands for, do you not believe that the result would be a more inspired work force? Once inspired, a person can move mountains.

People are people, and there are some who will never change. But if we don't try (over and over again), then we guarantee that the indifference we disdain will surely continue. Moreover, if we can inspire but one person in each of our organizations to take his or her work more seriously, then surely we will have elevated the practice of our profession and the esteem it generates by a quantum factor across the nation.

More is expected of our profession today than ever before. Many environmental health programs are being forced to respond to increases in workload and the demand for technical understanding with fewer staff and fewer resources. If ever, therefore, there was a time when our people needed more understanding, more knowledge, and more know-how, it is now. Where are we going to find such support? Why--it's right here.

This issue of the Journal offers two tickets to that better future. As is our custom in each issue, we have published a NEHA membership application. Copy it and walk into your employees' offices, shake their hands, look into their eyes, and then say, "I've got something special for you that I want you to take advantage of."

This issue also presents the details of our profession's annual conference, complete with a registration form. From the get-go, the conference was designed to provide the answers you need to more effectively understand your work and meet your responsibilities. Surely there is someone in your office whom you might encourage to attend.

I sell NEHA all the time. Seldom, however, do I sell it so straightforwardly When I recently read, however, of the number of people dying because of medical errors-many made by practitioners who don't really care about their work-I had to come out and say something more forcefully to our own people and especially to those within this great profession who man age and lead others. We, too, have an element of that same indifference within our ranks. We need to deal with it. We also need to do a better job at encouraging our people to join their state associations as well as their national one.

No one can do that better than you.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Environmental Health Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Article Details
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Author:Fabian, Nelson
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1366
Previous Article:The Importance of Communication and Public-Speaking Skills.
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