Health care is usually not a stock photo (of rainbows and butterflies)

if you go to the web site of any health care organization today, including the one I work for, you’re likely to find it covered with stock photography of the kind I refer to as “rainbows and butterflies,” which is of people who look generally happy running through fields, smiling as they use their computers, drinking a beverage and watching the day go by.

(One notable exception to this, by the way, is Group Health Cooperative, who use photographs of actual physicians and staff on their website)

I don’t think showing this imagery on a website is a bad thing.

I worry sometimes that people in the health care industry want to believe that this is what healthcare is all the time. Sometimes they don’t seem to want to hear the stories of how things weren’t perfect all the time. Or they only want to provide air time to the happy stories.

Remember the saga of the “Everywhere girl”? This is a stock photograph of a college aged woman that appeared in advertisements all over the world in the last decade – at one point the magazine The Inquirer declared, “Everywhere girl continues world domination.” Using this photo makes it seem that all of these big companies don’t care what their customers’ problems are or even who their customers are, the same image has been used again and again and again, and again.

In some situations I’ve been in, it has felt acceptable for people to be unhappy or intolerant toward the people who would disrupt the congruence with the stock photo.

I think the tolerance for the health-care-is-always-the-stock-photo view is what should be challenged.

Why? Because as Quint Studer so eloquently points out, “What you permit, you promote.” If you permit intolerance of reality, the next thing you know you wake up and the only perspective of health care that’s promoted is the one where there is nothing to improve because it’s perfect. Fine if you or your loved one never wakes up in a hospital bed; however, one day you or they will and you’ll be scared to find out this isn’t true.

Here’s what health care is not all of the time

Rainbows and butterflies

Here’s what health care is some of the time:

Hospital Land

Hospital Land (Read the story here)

Health care is intense, it’s scary, it’s sad, it’s emotional, it’s happy, it’s amazing. It’s devastating. It’s full of loss and grief. It’s full of birth and growth. People who work in health care are by definition exceptional – you have to be in a job this hard. There is incredible talent that can be brought to the toughest problems, both in our patients and our professionals.

There are people who I know who are experts in branding and communication who are on the quest for authenticity, a great reputation, trust (I think in that order but correct me if I don’t have it right, I’m just a doctor), which leads to sharing, truth, and saving lives. Humility with improvement is much better for health than hubris and status quo.

There are also experts in the area of quality improvement who use tools like design thinking and a new favorite of mine, video ethnography, where patients are literally followed home from the hospital, actually sometimes in the same car on the ride home, and the version of what health care “is” becomes undeniable.

Here’s my appeal: It’s for people/leaders to believe that those sharing the stories of what health care “is” are not trying to bring down the industry or even bring down the mood. I’m amazed at how often the same sentence with the dose of reality has a dose of high praise. Even in the toughest moments, the amount of compassion people bring is inspiring bordering on hard to believe.

This is my stock-photo post. I’m leaving it here and will refer people to it the next time  see evidence of anxiety on the part of people who are uncomfortable with the reality story. There is life, living, and the potential to prevent a lot more suffering than you do today when you go past the stock photo. Be brave. Love always wins. Thank you.

Ted Eytan, MD