If you have ever been a patient needing ongoing treatment for a serious illness like cancer or kidney disease, you know that there may be a time when the outcomes desired by the patient might be at odds with the medical goals and treatment. Other issues relating to the treatment room itself – like the physical discomfort of sitting for hours in a chair – can also have a negative impact. This is conflict that can bring on added stress if not appropriately addressed, but it is also a type of conflict that can result in a resolution that patients, families and caregivers can agree upon. Medical personnel need to take time to listen to what the patient is saying and take it seriously, and patients (or their families) need to exercise their autonomy and voice to speak up when they have an issue with treatment. Putting this knowledge into practice strengthens the patient-provider relationship, and can help build mutual trust, understanding and empathy.
In March of this year, Kay Ham, an adjunct faculty member for the Department of Human Relations and the College of Liberal Studies at the University of Oklahoma, was invited to give a talk on this very subject.
The occasion for her talk, “Courageous Conversations: Principles of Conflict Resolution,” was the Conference of the Forum of End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Networks, held in Baltimore on March 23 and 24, 2015. The heart of the conference was demonstrated in its theme, “Creating a Culture of Quality–Achieving Quality: Reconciling Competing Goals.” This was an outgrowth of the work of the ESRD Networks, their member dialysis units and the Forum of which they are members. The Forum is a national organization, and the Networks include dialysis units in jurisdictions all over the country. 150 proactive individuals interested in improving healthcare quality for renal patients were in attendance, including physicians (primarily nephrologists), nurses, counselors, directors of dialysis units, network administrators, patients and representatives of hospitals and universities. “It was clear from the beginning that every professional in the room genuinely cares about delivering the best in quality care, and most can empathize on a personal level with patients’ experiences and how they and their families can be affected,” Ham said.
“When we change our thinking about conflict from an unpleasant encounter to be avoided, and instead perceive conflict as a challenge, a problem to be solved by working together, being creative, we can generally arrive at solutions that meet the patients’ needs as well as medical goals.”
To inform her talk, Ham drew on insights from emails she received from renal disease patients describing their experiences, as well as those from physicians and others involved in patient care.
“As happens in many conflict situations, there are strong emotions, feelings of not being respected or listened to, and a sense of loss of autonomy when it comes to making decisions about one’s own care,” she said. “These are troubling to patients and can bring on more stress and possible noncompliance with treatment. On the other hand, when patients feel comfortable in speaking up, know they are respected – that physicians, nurses, techs, and other staff care about them and are willing to listen and take them seriously – trust is built, and open, authentic communication can happen. When we change our thinking about conflict from an unpleasant encounter to be avoided, and instead perceive conflict as a challenge, a problem to be solved by working together, being creative, we can generally arrive at solutions that meet the patients’ needs as well as medical goals.”
After her talk, Ham assisted with a panel in which participants were given an opportunity to role-play several scenarios. “Speaking and interacting with this roomful of brilliant, caring professionals was a special experience for me and one that I’ll not soon forget,” she said. “Participating in the conference allowed me to consider the Conflict Resolution course I teach for the College of Liberal Studies. Conflict resolution and communication skills, such as listening and empathy, are important for all of us, and are especially critical for our graduates who will be working in professions of healthcare, criminal justice, leadership and other areas of human interaction.”
Kay Ham, MHR, is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Human Relations and the College of Liberal Studies. She earned her B.S. in Education and Master of Human Relations degrees at OU, and is certified in civil, commercial and family mediation through the Mediation Institute. Ham has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on conflict resolution, organization behavior and organization development on campus and through Advanced Programs for U.S. military personnel based in the U.S. and Europe. She has provided consultation and training in conflict resolution for a variety of organizations in her community and around the state, and is a volunteer mediator for the Early Settlement-Norman Program. She is currently developing a new Conflict Resolution course for CLS. Ham has previously served as the Director of Health and Safety Services for the American Red Cross in New Jersey, and as Director of Health and Safety Services and Executive Director for the Louisiana Capital Area Chapter in Baton Rouge.
One of Ham’s values is service and giving back through volunteerism. She is the current Chair of the City of Norman Human Rights Commission; a volunteer Mediator for the Early Settlement-Norman Program; on the Board of Trustees of The Xenia Institute for Social Justice; on the Steering Committee of the Cleveland County disABILITY Coalition; a tutor for the Norman Public Library’s Adult Literacy Program; and past Chair of PFLAG Norman.
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.