Empathy: The Key to Improving the Patient Experience

If it seems you’ve been hearing the word “empathy” ricocheting through your universe more lately, you’re right. Interest in the term has spiked so much that according to Merriam-Webster, empathy was one of 2016’s most looked-up words.

We certainly hope healthcare execs are among those taking interest. That’s because Prophet’s recent patient experience research, done in partnership with GE Healthcare Camden Group, shows they need it.

Many in the industry know—or at least think they know—that empathy is in short supply. When we asked them, only 57 percent agree that the systems they work for have “an empathetic medical and administrative staff.” But when we asked patients the same question, only 36 percent agree. It is the biggest gap in our research – and a major reason why 81 percent, overall, are unhappy with their healthcare experience.

If you think that consumers may be coming down a little too hard on the healthcare industry, don’t. Studies that use objective observers to assess provider empathy are even harsher.

One experiment at Duke Cancer Institute, for example, audiotaped oncologists with patients and found doctors only respond with an empathetic statement (one that encourages a patient to keep talking about their feelings versus one that shuts them down) 22 percent of the time.

Two Approaches to Addressing the Empathy Gap

The smartest organizations are already working to fill the empathy gap, and there are two schools of thought on the best way to do this.

  • Education and training

The pioneering Cleveland Clinic is offering more training for its physicians and staff to help them see what patients see. (If you’ve never treated yourself to the full four minutes of its viral empathy video, do it now.) Along those same lines, Massachusetts General offers a popular online course called Empathetics, and some leading med schools now require students to take Oncotalk, aimed at improving their communication skills.

  • Technology Solutions

The other approach is to invest in technology solutions that help clinicians streamline their work, and free up more time to spend with patients. For example, GE Healthcare Camden Group works with healthcare providers to ensure they have the right tools and technologies in place so their staff can work most effectively, believing that physicians are best able to demonstrate empathy when they are not overworked or stretched too thin. Both approaches have merit.

The Basics of Improving Patient Experience

But in our work helping healthcare clients improve their patient experience and increase consumer loyalty, we’ve noticed the most effective ways to improve empathy begin with three basic —maybe even obvious—steps:

  • Listen to every patient.

    At every level, healthcare workers are flooded with patient information. But while a doctor may see as many as 40 patients a day, chances are the patient is only seeing one doctor that year. Everyone in the system needs to treat each patient interaction mindfully. For providers, that means asking thoughtful questions about symptoms, history and feelings. But it’s important for support staff, too. Three different forms asking for a patient’s address and whether they have allergies prove you aren’t listening.

  • Turn what you learned into action.

    Once a patient has provided you information, use it to make their experience more efficient and personal. For example, a physical therapist recently told our team that she was having a tough time getting a patient to comply with his post-surgery treatment. In their first session, he had explained he was eager to get back to golfing. But he grew increasingly frustrated with the tedious exercises in his treatment, most done on a table in her office. It was only when she broke the traditional treatment plan, and took him outside to work on his golf swing that she broke through. “That made all the difference,” she says, “it showed him I understood what matters to him. I made a connection between my treatment plan and his outcome goals.”

  • Sickness and injury are scary.

    Everyone in healthcare understands that. So hospitals choose soothing colors and designs. Dentists play soft music. Waiting areas are full of aquariums, fountains and plants. There’s nothing wrong with all that. But genuinely empathetic organizations actively prioritize and manage patient angst through a hierarchy system of anxiety reduction.

For example, providing gourmet food options is a nice perk, but it is actually less important to the overall patient experience than supplying accessible parking. Why? Because driving around looking for a parking spot when you are trying to make it to an appointment on time causes anxiety. Eating mediocre food isn’t exactly enjoyable, but it doesn’t cause stress.

At the same time, communicating test results quickly – something our research found that 50 percent of health organizations think they do, while just 33 percent of patients agree – is more important than providing easy parking. This is because people experience a greater amount of anxiety waiting for test results than they do looking for parking.

So when healthcare providers are looking to make improvements to the patient experience, they can determine what elements to prioritize by thinking about consumer pain points in terms of a hierarchy. The areas that elicit the most anxiety should be addressed first, then those that cause mild stress next, and so on.

Final Thoughts

Taken together, these three goals can power big changes in healthcare. It isn’t complicated. Healthcare attracts people who are inherently empathetic. The problem is that the industry is strewn with so much technology, processes and overscheduling that it makes empathetic people behave inhumanely. The shortcut to kindness is changing organizations to allow their natural empathy to shine through.

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