Iris Waichler

Iris Waichler: A Medical Social Worker’s Perspective on Healthcare

Iris Waichler gives us a medical social worker’s perspective on healthcare on this episode of the Perspectives on Healthcare podcast with Rob Oliver. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and joined the podcast from Chicago, Illinois. Iris Waichler is a member of the Baby Boomer generation. She has a broad range of experience within the healthcare setting, both personally and professionally. On a professional level, Iris Waichler has worked in end-of-life, emergency room, infertility, catastrophic injury, and more.

Here are 3 things that stood out as Iris Waichler gave us a medical social worker’s perspective on healthcare:

  • She believes that healthcare professionals should listen to patients, involve them in treatment decisions, and create a collaborative treatment plan that addresses all aspects of their well-being.
  • Quality healthcare involves a multidisciplinary approach, considering physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Support groups can help patients cope and connect with others facing similar challenges.
  • She believes that patients and their families should be empowered to ask questions, voice concerns, and actively participate in their treatment plans. Advocacy helps ensure that patients receive the care and information they need to make informed decisions.

You can connect with Iris Waichler through the links below:


Here is a transcript of the conversation as Iris Waichler gave us a medical social worker’s perspective on healthcare:

Rob Oliver: Thank you and welcome to Perspectives on Healthcare. Today’s perspective comes from Iris Waichler. She is a medical social worker from in Chicago, Illinois. She is a member of the Baby Boomer Generation. Iris, welcome to the podcast.

Iris Waichler: It’s great to be here. Thanks, Rob.

Rob Oliver: Oh, you bet. So tell me a little bit about yourself and your role in healthcare, please.

Iris Waichler: I’ve been a medical social worker for. 40 years now and I work primarily in hospitals and I’ve worked with people that have catastrophic illnesses and I particularly enjoy working with that population doing counseling with them and their families and then about 20 years ago I began writing from my experience with hospital patients and I’ve written three books and all of them have a patient advocacy theme. One is about how to get control of your hospital stay. One is about infertility. And one is about, my latest one is about, called Role Reversal, how to take care of yourself and your aging parents. And it’s part memoir of my being a caregiver for my dad and his story. And it’s got universal themes to help other patients and other family members. I really found in my experience that, in working with people that are in these incredibly vulnerable situations, that if you just know the right questions and you know what to do, that takes the anxiety level way down and that helps them get through a crisis. So that’s kind of been my life mission to help my patients and my families get the information and support they need so that they can as best as possible manage a catastrophic illness and situation.

Rob Oliver: Okay, it’s really odd to hear you say that you enjoy working with people with catastrophic injuries or catastrophic illnesses, because to me, that would be the most difficult part of the hospital to work in, because you’re looking at people who have, whose end-of-life prognosis is not real good, and yet that’s a population you seem to enjoy working with. Can you talk about how you were able to work with that population without getting jaded or burnt out or developing kind of shields of separation?

Iris Waichler: I guess it does sound strange, but for me, these are people that need to help the most. And also, a lot of my work was with rehabilitation and physical medicine, patients with strokes and amputations and head injuries and burns, and they want the help. They’re very eager to have the help. And I have to say, 99% of the people that came on my unit left in much better condition than when they came in. So I look at those people and I see what they weren’t able to do when they came in and what they are able to do when they leave. And it’s enormously gratifying to me. And also their families are very eager to work with me and the team and to get any support that they need. So I guess part of it is you feel like you really make a difference in these people’s lives. And for me also, with rehabilitation patients, I’m part of a multidisciplinary team. And it’s a privilege to be a part of that group because together we work to make people as whole as we possibly can and it’s incredibly gratifying and that collaboration really is an important tool in terms of healthcare.

Rob Oliver: Okay, so my use of catastrophic injury is not completely out of the scope of what you’re doing because you’re dealing with people who have life altering physical circumstances, whether that be a stroke or. an amputation, something like that, or somebody like me with a spinal cord injury.

Iris Waichler: Absolutely.

Rob Oliver: So, in that way, you’re not dealing with people, you’re dealing with people who have had a change in their life circumstances, but who are not at the end of life stages of dealing with cancer or something along those lines.

Iris Waichler: I was just going to say, I also work with end of life patients and I’ve worked with cancer patients. I’ve covered the ER. So I’ve… come there when someone has been in a terrible car accident, for example, and has died. I’ve worked with people who’ve lost children to SIDS. So I also work with end of life issues and helping families with that. And for me, of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotionally draining sometimes, but I also feel that there’s an intimacy and a privilege in being with someone to help them get as much support and dignity as they can as they. as they face death.

Rob Oliver: And I think it’s important to hear what you just said. You’re talking about a patient who passed away, but your work as a social worker includes working with their family, and how to handle that loss is what I’m hearing you say. So the scope of your work is beyond just working with the individual who is in the hospital bed.

Iris Waichler: Absolutely. Because when Someone you love is in a serious healthcare crisis or is dying, it affects the family members and the people that are closest to them. And they need that support so much too for both their sakes and the patient’s sake.

Rob Oliver: Okay. What does quality healthcare mean to you?

Iris Waichler: I think we’ve touched on it already. And for me, quality healthcare means giving a patient regardless. of their age, their diagnosis, their economic status, where they live, the maximum and best health care that they can get at any given moment. And I also think it’s really important, and this is something that doesn’t happen, that patient has a voice in their health care too, that the clinicians, the health care professionals working with them, listen to what they have to say, what their wishes are, and respect that and incorporate that. in a treatment plan because that’s so important too. As I said, working on the rehab unit, together we help to make a person whole. So the occupational therapists help their arms to work better, help them to dress themselves. I gave the emotional support, physical therapy, help them to walk. And our doctors would come in and look at the whole patient and think about the whole patient. And I think sometimes that’s really missing. I’ve personally seen that. And I’ve seen that professionally where people come in, professionals come in, healthcare professionals, and they don’t look at the person they’re treating as a whole person. And that’s, to me, that’s really important, that dignity piece and that having a voice in what’s gonna happen to you and your body is certainly important too.

Rob Oliver: Yeah, in my personal rehab experience, I credit my occupational therapist with really changing my outlook on what was going on with me. When I went into the… I was in rehab, in the rehab setting, and she asked me, what do you want to do? And I said, like, you know what the extent of my injury is, you know what the capabilities I have, like you tell me, I’ll work to it. She said, you tell me what you want to do and I’ll work with you to accomplish that. And it really put me in the driver’s seat to say, how do I envision my future? What are my goals? And then how do we work toward those? And so in that way, especially in the rehab setting, the patient has to be in the driver’s seat because it’s their life that you’re looking at as they are leaving the rehab facility to say they’ve gotta be empowered to make the choices to do the things that they wanna do that interest them and not just be directed by the medical professionals in that.

Iris Waichler: That’s such a perfect example. And I’ll tell you this, just a quick story in my experience on rehab. I walked by a patient’s room one day The family was outside the room sobbing. I looked inside and the resident was just giving a simple EKG to the father slash husband. And I found out that the resident hadn’t spent the two minutes it would have taken to tell them what he was doing. The family thought he was dying. They literally thought he was dying and that he was hooked up to this machine to save his life. And I was so struck by that and so moved by that, that I ended up writing. my first book, Patient Power, how to have a say during your hospital stay because it’s so important, it’s so important to consider the person that you’re working with and try to anticipate what they need and what their issues and questions are.

Rob Oliver: Yeah, you and I are very much on the same page with that. I developed the skills of self-advocacy because of my experiences in the hospital and what you’re doing is empowering patients and their families. to be proactive and advocate for what’s going on with them. And I think that is a population that, sadly, is not trained, and mostly because you don’t need the training until you are in the situation. And it’s almost trial by fire or learning on the job, or however you want to phrase that.

Iris Waichler: At a time when you have the least emotional and physical resources to do it. So it’s so challenging. I agree with you 100%.

Rob Oliver: Good. You’ve already done this a bit, but can you give me an example of quality healthcare?

Iris Waichler: Well, taking for example, my stroke patients, they come in and that usually means there’s some limitations with their mobility and their ability to dress themselves or feed themselves. And many times, depending on where the stroke affects them in their brain, they may not be able to speak. They may not be able to tell us what’s needed or they may not understand what is said to them. And the team goes in, speech therapist helps them figure out how to communicate and also teaches their families and how to do that. The occupational therapist teaches them about getting their hand function together, fine motor coordination, and helps them to be able to do self-care skills like dressing and feeding and bathing. and physical therapy helps them to get as ambulatory as possible. I’m there to help them address the emotional aspects of it. And also as we talked about counseling their families about issues and how is this going to affect your life? Um, what kinds of help are you going to need when you leave the hospital? I think that’s another gaping hole in our healthcare system. There’s no follow-up. And so people are left stranded when they get back home. And so a lot of what I did was make sure that they were, that they had the resources they need when they left the hospital. And they went on their journey home, which is pretty terrifying when you’ve been in a hospital a long time and all of a sudden you’re back at home and the challenges that come. So that to me is quality healthcare, regardless of your insurance, regardless of where you live, regardless of anything about your background and coming together to give the most important and quality care you can and then getting them as far as they can as efficiently and effectively and as compassionately as possible. I think that compassion aspect is really important as well.

Rob Oliver: Excellent. So what I hear you saying is that you are, there’s a dual aspect of it. One is viewing the patient as a multiplicity of needs and, you know, so there’s ambulatory, there’s dressing, there’s speech. the medical side of it, the emotional side of it. I’m imagining there would be a psychologist as part of the team that is looking at that aspect of it. And so-

Iris Waichler: Absolutely.

Rob Oliver: So what you’ve got is you’re looking at the patient as a whole rather than as a diagnosis, and you’re assembling a treatment team that addresses all of those areas, but you are also, as you mentioned earlier, including the patient and their family as part of that. treatment team and it’s part of those that are developing the treatment plan to make sure that it works and it fits in.

Iris Waichler: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. There’s another aspect to it. I did groups as well because I think when you’re experiencing a medical crisis, you feel very alone and very isolated. It’s really important to have the opportunity to connect with other people that are experiencing a similar medical crisis. unique to you and also having that support, that comfort, tips from them about how they cope, it can be really gratifying. It can help in the recovery in very meaningful ways.

Rob Oliver: Okay. You just blew my mind because I never made this connection, okay? When I was in rehab, we did the group discussions with the social worker and never realized that was putting the social into social workers. So that’s a good question. I missed it completely. What do you wish people understood about your role in healthcare?

Iris Waichler: I think kind of what you just said, understanding the advocacy piece of it because that’s so important. And sometimes that’s sort of under the radar there that they don’t recognize everything that’s done because what social workers do is sort of invisible. Your physical therapist works on your leg and you know how much you can move it at the beginning and you know how much you can move it at the end. It’s very tangible, concrete and quantifiable, but… The work that social workers do isn’t like that. When you work with someone on an emotional level, you may feel better, but you may not attribute it to the social worker. And it may not necessarily be with the social worker. But we do a lot of invisible things. But I think there’s a huge healing component to it. And also, we do tangible things, like hooking people up with home health care or other resources and tangible things that are needed to help with the ongoing recovery process.

Rob Oliver: I would imagine a lot of what a social worker does is not actually seen because it’s not done in the room face to face with the patient. So yeah, what excites you about the future of healthcare?

Iris Waichler: I think it’s a really exciting time in the sense that the research that we do and the data that we’re sharing is pretty revolutionary. COVID comes to mind how quickly they figured out what it was a means to treat it and put things together for people. And the other thing is now in healthcare, there’s a sharing of data. I had a good friend who is a cancer researcher and he’s American, but he was working in Scotland. And he was on a team that did the revolutionary research where when you had cancer, there was an isotope that would glow so that doctors would know where it was and know how to treat it rather than having to treat the whole body. When I talked to him about it, he said, we weren’t allowed to share this research, which to me blew my mind. And now it’s not like that. Now there’s a collaborative issue and a collaborative spirit in the healthcare globally, the healthcare community, and the pandemic proved that as we could all see. So to me, that’s really, really exciting, the levels of research, the discoveries. Now that most recently with Alzheimer’s, they have a medication that they’re using that seems to… be able to suppress the decline of cognitive and memory abilities. So to me, those are really, really exciting things that are happening. The research with CRISPR, the genetic research with potentially some they help wipe out hereditary genetic diseases. So those things make me very, very happy.

Rob Oliver: Yeah, there seems to be something kind of, you know, diametrically opposed here. that the companies that are doing the research for medical things that have potential to do humanity at large a wonderful service are companies that are interested in making a profit. So you have both dynamics at the same time. Is this going to make money or are we going to over, we’re going to override the desire to make money with the desire to serve humanity and to treat the problems that we face as a race. It’s a delicate balance and I don’t wanna say people aren’t allowed to make money, but at the end of the day, it seems like we need to put humanity first and the dollar second, but that’s a soapbox I could probably stand on for way too long, so.

Iris Waichler: Well, I would get up there in that soapbox with you. There are people though, I would say this too, the people making those decisions, the people with the money who are doing that. Some of them are very irresponsible about it and they’re focused singularly on that money piece. But people, for example, like Bill Gates, he’s done all this work with malaria and other things. He doesn’t just drop a bunch of money in there. He went out there, he went to Africa. He realized that they needed to build a road to get the trucks to the villages where it was needed, the medication was needed. He realized there were no refrigeration devices there to put the medications in. So it was very thoughtful, the processes that he used to help. And we need more people like that, because there are people right now that are not doing those kinds of things. But I think if more people thought about those kinds of things, it would really make a difference in terms of the quality of health care that’s being done globally around the world.

Rob Oliver: Got it. Yeah. Interesting, we had Peter Small on who specializes in cough and did a lot of work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. as it relates to tuberculosis across the globe. So for those of you interested in that, I encourage you to go back and check that episode out. Last question. What is one thing medical professionals can start doing today to improve the quality of healthcare? Or did I just ask you that question?

Iris Waichler: No, you didn’t.

Rob Oliver: Okay.

Iris Waichler: But I think we touched on it a little bit, but I would say this. I would say treat patients and families with dignity and respect. My doctor retired and I had after 40 years of working with him and I had to get a new doctor and when I called to make an appointment, her office said, no, she doesn’t do that. You have to come in and meet with her. And I went in to meet her and the purpose of our meeting was for her to give me a chance to ask any questions that I had. And so I talked to her about her philosophy of treatment. I talked to her about her experience. And she was checking to make sure that we were gonna be on the same page and that I was okay with the approach that she used with her patients. And I think that is not done enough. I walked out the door and said, I made a good choice here. And I think there needs to be more of that to do quality healthcare. more communication, more listening, more mutual respect, and giving patients the time they need to ask the questions that they need to voice their concerns and to be a part, an equal partner in the treatment team.

Rob Oliver: Wonderful. Listen, Iris Waichler, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate that. For all my listeners, this is one last reminder that there is a duplicate edition of perspectives on health care on Apple iTunes Please go to the perspectives on website to make sure that you are subscribed to the right one because it’s going away At the end of the year and this is just about the last reminder you’re gonna get so make sure you’re done that so you don’t miss any future episodes. In the meantime Iris Waichler. I appreciate you and I respect your perspective on health care.

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Disclaimer: All opinions expressed by guests on the Perspectives on Healthcare Podcast are solely the opinion of the guest. They are not to be misconstrued as medical diagnoses or medical advice. Please consult with a licensed medical professional before attempting any of the treatments suggested.

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