The ethical issue of productivity in healthcare
I haven’t blogged in a loooong time and as I was going through old files, I found something I had written about “productivity” within healthcare and the ethical issues I have with it, as an occupational therapist.
Essentially, many hospitals/clinics/settings have a set amount of “productivity” (billable units of time, typically in 15 minute increments, and usually only gotten during client treatment time) that each therapist is expected to get each day. Now, of course productivity can be a good thing in that obviously we want occupational therapists treating clients versus sitting around eating bon-bons, but the reality is that most therapists are already rushing around all day, doing their best to see all their clients, do paperwork, schedule things, collaborate, etc. What I’ve found is that unrealistically high productivity standards tend to lead to ethical dilemmas.
Here’s an example I give, which I experienced during fieldwork in 2009:
I am working on a locked geriatric psych ward. I just finished up an occupational therapy treatment session with a very mobile male who frequently gets aggressive (throwing chairs in hallways and such). He has a short fuse and if he gets stressed/frustrated, he escalates. I’m supposed to meet productivity units and my time is very limited for the rest of the day. As I am walking out of his room where he has gotten into bed, he asks me for a drink of water. Patients can’t get it themselves. I hesitate and the following goes through my brain:
Scenario 1: I get him the drink of water as requested. It will require me heading down a long hallway and navigating multiple people who want my attention, tracking down a nurse for a key, going into a room and getting the water if there are even cups in supply, finding the nurse to return the key, and walking back. He may expect that it’s a simple request, but even if everything goes smoothly, it could take 5 minutes, and possibly closer to 15. I will lose at least one precious, precious unit, but at least he got a need meet as soon as possible and on first request, which means he will -more likely – stay calm. (Why it takes so much work to get water is a separate issue not addressed here!)
Scenario 2. Worst case scenario plays out. I don’t want to lose my productivity so I let him know I have to run but I will ask a nurse as I am headed out. It may be true, but I know full well the chances are extraordinarily high, thanks to strained resources, that the nurse will take mental note and get to it when she can, which may take a while, and that in the meantime, every time anyone walks by his room, he will ask whoever that is again, who will say they will tell his nurse, and he will become increasingly frustrated. Here he is asking for the simplest and basic of needs to be met and nobody will help him. He will escalate to violence, throwing chairs in the hallway as he tends to do. (There’s only one hallway/entrance – no way to get out if he’s blocking it) All other residents will be stuck inside their rooms as area staff deal with this. Now there are six people focusing on de-escalation. In the meantime, patients are stressed, nurses run behind on meds, and I may be stuck somewhere, having to wait until the coast is clear. Now all the employees have lost productivity, quality of care is suffering as now all the poor patients have to deal with this. And it’s certainly not fun for the agitated patient, either. And even if I had already left the area so it didn’t affect MY productivity, it was certainly horrible for those left behind.
IF I DO SCENARIO 1: I get him the water, no escalation, everything stays more or less on track, and I have lost a unit with no good reason (in director’s eyes), which I may get scolded for later. The director doesn’t appreciate hearing “Well yes I didn’t get that unit but it’s because if I didn’t get him his water then X would occur then Y then Z so really I saved units.”
IF I DO SCENARIO 2: I don’t get him the water. I potentially get my productivity unit. The department is happy. If he didn’t end up escalating, I’m happy I did in fact get my unit, but I still feel guilty that I didn’t help him. If he did end up escalating because of not getting his water fast enough, I feel absolutely hideous.
I quickly learned through fieldworks that I am not able to handle a job with productivity units. I would have been fired quickly. I get too stressed out about it. Too much worst case scenario thinking and too hard of a time saying no (or if I do say no, I obsess). I need to work on those issues, I do know that!
There are tons of very ethical therapists who work quite successfully in placements with productivity, obviously. I always wish I could be inside their heads to see what it would feel like to not go into worst case scenarios or always feeling bad about sometimes having to say no. Like in the situation above. I obviously went into worst case scenarios.
Luckily the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has been addressing the issues of productivity and ethics in our field – helping ensure that productivity standards are realistic and don’t lead to increased likelihood of ethical dilemmas, for example.