Dr Catherine Crock wants to change the dangerous culture in hospitals

Meet the physician determined to change the dangerous culture in hospitals

There is no end to suitable, and impressive, titles for Dr Catherine Crock. She is a physician at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, a medical pioneer and a producer of music and theatre.

She is a mother of five and a wife of one. She is the chair and founder of the Hush Foundation, a charity organisation that works to transform the culture of healthcare through the Arts.

She is also the co-founder of the Gathering of Kindness, a grassroots movement that seeks to address bullying and poor culture in healthcare by focusing on building a kind health system.

Any one of those roles might reasonably exhaust the capacity of most human beings, but Dr Crock is not most human beings. She is tireless in the pursuit of change in healthcare, change that she believes will benefit the users of healthcare – patients and their families – as well as the hundreds of thousands of women and men who work in the field.

“I have had a lot of concerns about the culture in healthcare for a long time,” Dr Crock tells Women’s Agenda. “There is change but it’s too gradual for my liking. It is an emergency.”

Catherine led a revolution of sorts in the way children with leukemia and other cancers were treated in the late 1990s, after asking parents and families about their experience of coming to hospital. There were certain procedures which some children had to undergo repeatedly throughout their two-to-three year treatments, like bone marrow tests and lumbar punctures, that were extremely distressing.

“The sedation we were using was not managing their pain adequately. The children were often highly stressed and upset during the procedure but were often sick with anxiety for days before any visit,” Dr Crock says.

After learning from many parents that these procedures were the most difficult aspect of their child’s treatment, with the support of a ‘visionary CEO’, Crock made changes and introduced anaesthesia to improve the procedure.

Engaging with parents and patients became a passion and focus for Dr Crock.

“The families knew about many aspects of the hospital system of which the health professionals were simply unaware,” she says. “I realised that the expertise that the families brought to the table could improve our efficiency, reduce costs, highlight gaps in the system, improve safety and improve patient and staff satisfaction.”

It was this consultation that led Dr Crock to start the Hush Foundation. She learned that visiting the hospital, and operating theatres in particular, was extremely stressful for families because it was such an uncomfortable environment.

Since 2000, the Hush Foundation has produced 15 albums of music that are now used across Australia and around the world to reduce stress and anxiety in health care settings. Staff practitioners working in the hospital environment also benefit from the calming and restorative effects of music.

Catherine worked in collaboration with renowned playwright Alan Hopgood, to write and produce two plays ,“Hear Me” and “Do You Know Me?”. These productions have been performed in hospitals and Aged Care settings across Australia more than 100 times, to raise awareness of patient centered care, communication and patient safety issues, and to encourage a shift in the culture and behavior in healthcare.

The Gathering of Kindness, a grassroots movement, is the next manifestation of Dr Crock’s mission to improve the culture in health.

“Bullying, harassment, poor staff culture and health professional stress are big issues that have been in the media recently,” Dr Crock says. “To me this is an emergency in healthcare culture.”

She says it is well known that that these cultural issues impose high costs on health organisations, patients and individuals. Medical errors, patients dying, Staff burning out, or worse, taking their own lives, are among the known consequences of poor culture.

Despite the well-established link between culture and poor patient outcomes Dr Crock says change has been slow and largely ineffective.

“The typical response has been more policies and procedures on bullying and harassment, zero tolerance statements and “weeding out the bad apples”,” she says. “These responses seem like they would help, but they are all negative and reactive. They can be ineffective and even counterproductive.”

Dr Crock started to think about an alternative, based on the direct correlation between organisational negativity and staff wellbeing and effectiveness. The answer? A kind health system.

“It’s more than just ‘let’s be nice’, it is an antidote to a dangerous culture,” she says. “It goes to the heart of the issues that keep doctors and leaders awake at night. What are those things? Things going wrong. Medical errors. Patients dying. Staff distress. Losing staff. A staff member committing suicide.”

The Gathering of Kindness, cofounded with Mary Freer, was born in 2016 when 100 participants – actors, healthcare clinicians, artists, musicians and innovators – were invited to imagine that kindness, trust and respect were the fundamental components of the healthcare system and that bullying was unacceptable.

“We started to think about how we could influence leaders to think about kindness and how they treat their colleagues and patients but also the fact that every single person in the system has the capacity to make a difference in the smallest way,” Dr Crock says.

She admits creating this change is reasonably challenging given the pressure and constraints that exist in the health system.

“I don’t underestimate the pressure that everyone in health, even in the department, face. But when staff aren’t functioning at their best, and when communication breaks down, that’s when things go wrong,” she says. “Poor behaviour is dangerous to patients.”

By way of contrast, being kind isn’t necessarily difficult. Simple things like taking a deep breath, seeking to understand your colleagues and co-workers and being polite, don’t require extra time or money.

“It helps to de-escalate a situation which is even more valuable when people are busy and stressed,” Dr Crock says. “We need to break the cycle of brutalising the next generation because that’s what we had done to us.”

The 2017 Gathering of Kindness will commence on Monday the 30th of October.

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