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Semmelweis Reflex

A post by Seth Godin reminds me how predictable we are when faced with change-the more action required on our part, the more we resist new ideas. And the most difficult action is choosing to accept the idea. The story of a nineteenth-century obstetrician illustrates this point.

In the middle 1800s, women giving birth in public hospitals throughout Europe risked developing the deadly disease puerperal sepsis or, as many referred to it, childbed fever. Doctors had not yet discovered a connection between germs and disease, and mothers were dying at alarming rates. The conventional medical wisdom proclaimed childbed fever as simply not preventable.

Hungarian-born Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was assistant physician of midwifery at Vienna General Hospital in 1847. The hospital, which served primarily poor and unwed women, had two delivery wards, one staffed by medical students and the other by midwives. Dr. Semmelweis observed that 13 percent of the patients in the medical student ward died from childbed fever, compared with only 2 percent of the patients in the ward attended by midwives. He began to suspect that the students, who practiced surgical techniques by dissecting cadavers, were transmitting the fever as they moved back and forth between performing autopsies and treating patients.

To Semmelweis, the solution was obvious. He instructed students to wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining patients. The results were dramatic. Mortality rates for the two wards were now comparable. Next, he directed students to wash the medical instruments used in the delivery process. Soon, Semmelweis had virtually eradicated childbed fever from the ward.

When Semmelweis published his findings, mainstream medicine belittled his conclusions. The idea of washing their hands seemed undignified and humiliating to physicians who considered their profession divinely blessed. But to Godin's point, to accept the idea, doctors would have had to admit their inadvertent role in causing the deaths of unknown numbers of patients.

When bring you new ideas or warnings, how do you react? If you respond with an onslaught of rejection--the aptly named Semmelweis Reflex approach--your employees will in the future refrain from challenging conventional wisdom. Instead, they will fritter away their insights while swapping lunchroom grievances with coworkers.
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