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White Spaces vs. Blank Spaces

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

In our noisy culture where everything from COVID-19, cell phones, traffic and even family obligations seem to scream for our attention, the need to create “white spaces” in our calendar has never been more important. White spaces are opportunities to think when we can get away from all the noise and urgency that constantly surrounds us. Nowhere is white space more important than it is in healthcare leadership. White space is where we can process patients’ needs and to arrive at a course of action. It is where we make sense of confusing circumstances in our institutions. It is where we chart the course for our organizations out of this current crisis. Nowhere is white space more at risk than in healthcare. As the crush of patients seeking care, and the lack of pharmaceuticals and PPE overwhelm our institutions the white space is squeezed out as we are pulled from one crisis to another. As regulatory and governmental burdens increase, time previously dedicated to white space is now spent focusing on making sure that we meet all the regulatory requirements and making sure that our clinicians document accurately and completely so that the medical record captures the true severity of illness. This is in part so that reimbursement is appropriately maximized, and publicly reported quality ratings reflect the care we provide to our patients.

As problematic as the lack of “white spaces” is, the topic for today is the “blank spaces” in our day. Blank spaces are those short, unscheduled transition times in our day that we increasingly ignore, or we waste. These are times when we are waiting in line at the coffee bar or riding the elevator or waiting for the shuttle to work. These are times that we have the opportunity to make short connections with others. Previously, we might have interacted with people around us or read the front page of the newspaper, but it seems like with the advent of “smartphones” these blank spaces are increasingly “wasted spaces”. Rather than leveraging these short periods of time to make connections with those around us, we play games on our phones, we check Facebook yet again, we check our email, we stream a video of cute kittens or funny goats. Not that any of these things are bad, but they do rob us of brief, sometimes meaningful, interactions.

I was reminded of this when I was talking with Mike, one of the nursing directors at an organization where I worked. He shared with me about an interaction he had with a patient’s family in the elevator. In the period of time it took to ride the elevator 7 floors he learned the story of one of the patients, allowed the family to express their gratitude for the care we provided, and he offered the family his assistance. The short interaction obviously moved Mike and reconnected him with why he was called to healthcare.

Mike’s experience reminded me of a time when I was waiting for my ride home. Tommy, who works in environmental services, happened to be cleaning the area around me. In just a few moments before my ride arrived, I learned his history, that he liked to hunt and that he worked in a hospital because he felt his calling was to do his job in such a way that no patient ever needlessly experienced a healthcare associated infection. I continued to see Tommy in the halls of the hospital. In those brief moments, he lifted my spirits, and hopefully, I lifted his.

Motivated by Mike, I have begun to try to put down my cellphone in those blank spaces and connect with those around me. I am surprised how much I enjoy those brief interactions. I am amazed by how these interactions surprise people, but also bring a smile to their faces.

In a culture marked by noise and distractions, consider reaching out to connect with others; your staff and colleagues, your patients, their families and your clients, rather than waste your blank spaces. You might be surprised how the interactions, brief as they are, rejuvenate you, create unexpected connections and remind you of why you are called to healthcare.

The old adage “make every moment count” includes making our blank spaces count.

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