Thursday, August 5, 2010

11% of County Waste is Recycled

Posted by Juliette Kelley , Mental Health Program Chief

I got a county email today in the subject line it read, “Only 11% of county waste is recycled – it needs to be higher.” It set off a little tiny chain reaction inside me.

I managed to avoid math and statistics throughout most of college. Algebra is a foreign country for which I did not have a passport. I was successful at my avoidance strategy until I got to graduate school. In graduate school I had to take biostatistics which I entered not unlike how a cat takes to water – all four limbs rigid and claws extended. I was thrown in and managed to emerge with an honorable grade but determined to forget what I could. After all, I was going to work with people, not statistics. I did reasonably well avoiding statistics in my career. I could keep up with studies and understand lectures but I still didn’t need to keep up with my numbers unless pressed.

Then I met Anna. In the same way that the late Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) used to hold up an Australian Brown Snake and utter “Danger! Danger! Danger!”; our Chief Executive Officer, Anna Roth looks at health care programs and utters, “Data! Data! Data!” In other words, how do we know what we need to change if we aren’t really measuring what we are doing right now? It’s a good question.

I am used to operating in the dark, many of us are. Not just at the hospital or in the County, but in general. We are a nation of anecdotes and personal feelings which carries more weight that it should. In a hospital, the higher up on the professional food chain we go, the more heft there is to your opinion. If you are a nurse, you have an ordinary array of professional currency but if you are an MD, even one fresh out of medical school, your opinion trumps the nurse. If you are a custodian or an aide, your opinion barely moves the opinion-meter. Finally, if you happen to be a family member or a patient – well, you are there to be convinced your opinion is pointless. Data shifts the weight of personal opinions and cultural hierarchy. It provides a starting place so improvement can be measured -- simply and without judgment.

The ambiguity isn’t the fault of the person emailing the letter. In fact, I applaud the effort to make us all aware of the recycling opportunities we have in the county. But it showed me that something had shifted inside of me, I – a mathematic-phobic social worker was asking questions that would lead to data that could change the way I practice, the way I make decisions even if it was only about trash.

This is how culture change happens in any organization – one thing at a time, no matter how small which leads to a personal change which eventually leads to a system change.

Now, you have to excuse me while I go shred the contents of my in-box and recycle.

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