Rediscover your personal power to heal
Why dignity is so important
Factors that may affect a person's sense of dignity when dealing with the health care system
Basic principles for care that maintains, or even strengthens, a person's dignity
Whether they hold the scalpel, prepare the bed, schedule the appointments or respond to the first anxious call for help... everyone working in health care plays a role in the lives of people using its services. Their attitudes and behaviour can have a big influence on every person seeking medical attention.
For many people working in health care, the desire to help and heal is what attracted them to their jobs in the first place. Unfortunately, time pressures, systemic issues and complexities can sometimes make it challenging to provide the most sensitive and responsive care possible.
Dignity in Care provides solutions to help overcome these challenges. Solid research has provided a good understanding of the greatest concerns and anxieties of those who use health care – and with this knowledge, the research team has developed practical ideas and tools that can be applied to any health care setting or occupation.
It's important to note that supporting dignity is not an additional task for anyone working in health care. It's a way of bringing additional insights to the work people are already doing, and a means of helping them get more satisfaction out of their jobs.
When interactions with those around them are positive, people working in health care can gain a greater sense of dignity in their own lives. They can encourage constructive conversations that may identify potential issues and lead to better care. And they can draw greater pride from their work, knowing that they are doing something important to bring comfort into many lives.
Why focus on "dignity?"
There is an intimate connection between every person's self-image and the way they feel they are seen by the people working in the health care system. Whether they realize it or not – and whether they desire it or not – patients and families look to them as they would to a mirror, seeking a positive reflection of themselves.
Attitudes and behaviours can shape those all-important reflections. It's important to reflect back an appreciation of the whole person, and not just the illness or affliction. No one wants to feel invisible, and no one wants to be seen as a tumour or a defective part. Patients want to be seen as people who are seeking help with a medical concern.
Research with the terminally ill showed that a personal sense of dignity can literally make the difference between a person's wish to live or die. In one study, two-thirds of dying people receiving care in a hospital setting felt dignity was something that could be taken away from them by others. In the same study, nearly every terminally ill person receiving care in a community setting held the opposite view.
These findings show the tremendous importance of dignity, and why the health care system has a duty to safeguard every person's sense of value and self-esteem.
Dynamics of illness and dignity
Like happiness, dignity is a multi-faceted and diverse notion that can be difficult to define. But like happiness, it is worth the effort of bringing dignity into the life of every person using health care.
Through 15 years of study, the research team has found that a consistent range of factors can support or undermine a person's sense of dignity when they are dealing with a medical concern.
- The illness itself can lead to concerns about lost independence, distressing symptoms and overwhelming anxiety.
- The person's own approaches and perspectives can help to maintain their sense of dignity.
- The way the person is treated by others can either support or erode dignity.
When grouped together, these factors form the Dignity Model.
The more severe or troubling the medical concern, the more likely that most of these factors will affect the person's sense of dignity. However, some of these factors apply universally to all people using health care, at any level.
For example, just about everyone expects kindness and respect when having any sort of interaction with the health care system. It's also common for people to want to have some degree of control or "say" in their treatment, no matter how minor the medical concern.
The Dignity Model
|Category||Themes and Sub-themes|
Level of independence
The Person's Perspectives and Practices
(The Dignity-Conserving Repertoire)
How the person perceives the situation
What the person does to ease the situation
Interactions with Others
(The Social Dignity Inventory)
Principles for care that enhances dignity
The health care team can do many things to help buffer negative influences on a person's sense of dignity.
Affirm the person's value
- Make the person feel that they are seen as the person they are or were, rather than just their medical concern.
View people apart from their disease
- Communicate and affirm the aspects of their personhood that are not affected by illness.
Safeguard the person's privacy
- Remember that procedures that may be routine for those who work in health care are not routine for most patients.
Address pain and discomfort
- Make treatment of physical pain a priority.
Deal with fears and anxieties
- Provide information about the expected medical course, treatment options and the way in which the illness can be managed.
- Detect and treat symptoms of cognitive impairment, including delirium.
Help people maintain a feeling of control and independence
- Give people the opportunity to participate in decisions about their care or other personal issues.
Offer or bolster social support
- Encourage the involvement of family, health care providers, spiritual practitioners.
The ABCDs of Dignity in Care can make help you make dignity a routine consideration in your job.
For a detailed list of dignity-conserving solutions, see the Dignity Toolkit.