Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Lessons from earlier in life: bagging groceries 


The service industry principles I learned while working in a grocery store apply to medicine. These include prioritizing customer needs, actively listening, and appreciating colleagues. 

Being a healthcare professional takes years of education and training. While that is essential to practice medicine, I’d argue that many things I use daily are things I learned at my first real job. Aside from babysitting, my first job was working at the Safeway grocery store in my hometownfirst as a courtesy clerk (meaning: bagger) and then, when I turned 18, as a checker. What I learned from this as a teenager:  


1. You’re serving someone else.

We work in the service industry as healthcare professionals, just as I worked in the service industry at Safeway. Our service is more complex and may be provided during the hardest days of our patients’ lives. Our work is about the patients and their families, not ourselves. 


2. Those you serve don’t always care how you’re feeling. 

This might sound harsh, but it’s not necessarily untrue. The people whose groceries I was checking out didn’t care if I was having a bad day. They wanted me to bag their groceries and get them home. Some of my patients do care about me and how I’m feeling, and for that I’m very grateful. But I don’t expect it. I’m there to take care of them, not the other way around. Long-term patient relationships may resemble partnerships or friendships in a way, and we’re blessed when we have these. Shorter-term relationships, especially when the patient is very ill, are less likely to have that.  


3. Show up on time.

If you don’t show up on time at the grocery store, you get fired. Now, if I don’t show up on time for the clinic, everything gets behind and I spend the rest of the day apologizing to patients for being late. Just show up on time.   


4. Every job has value.

I learned this the first time I had to clean the bathroom in the grocery store. While I’d cleaned in my house, cleaning the bathroom that random people use gives you a profound appreciation for people who do this job every day. Our hospital couldn’t run without environmental service employees. Our patients wouldn’t eat without people cooking in the kitchen. We all have important jobs that matter. 


5. Listen more than you speak.

It’s amazing what people tell you while you check out their groceries. Some people just need to get things off their chest. As a physician, I remember the importance of listening and of giving people a chance to tell their story.  









This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.