Healthcare’s Empathy Imperative – MedCity News


How healthcare leaders can harness data and enact lasting change, delivering person-centric care

Healthcare has reached a tipping point. Facing financial pressures, a changing competitive landscape, and shortages in talent, the industry has been pushed to its limits. Clinicians struggle to rationalize the dissonance between the healing they sought to provide and overcoming their day-to-day barriers. The subsequent moral distress makes it harder for them to keep showing up as their best selves – for their colleagues, and for their patients. The industry needs to take action, and it all starts with one word: empathy.

The endless debate: Who comes first? 

At its core, empathy is the ability to “feel into” and understand the emotional experience of another – while standing in your own shoes – and then to act on that understanding. Without question, clinicians want to deliver the best care to the patient in front of them. So, the question is: “What gets in the way?” – not: “What’s wrong with them?” The first opportunity is to openly encourage healthcare workers to have empathy for themselves. If the team is short staffed for the third week or third month and you are picking up the pieces, awareness of the spaces you can create that allow you to keep going is critical. Only the healthcare worker knows what those are – food, water, laughter, family, fresh air, etc. – and what is accessible when. Awareness of how one feels, articulation of it, and practicing asking for help or doing what you need to do matters when we think about empathy for self.

Organizations can also help. Queue operationalizing empathy, the concept of baking empathy into the organization’s workflows and practices.

Over the past decade, data has shown patients experience a fragmented healthcare system, one that makes them feel invisible and unknown and amplifies anxiety with broken processes. The saving grace? The relationship patients often have with their care team – a relationship that enables them to tolerate – and forgive – all the rest. However, they should not have to. The irony is, clinicians are also frustrated by the brokenness and yet keep forging ahead in service of their patients and colleagues. At this moment, a catalyst for change is taking form in the convergence of patient consumerism and digital transformation. Not simply as buzzwords, but as new models of care delivery and a revolt against what has been. We all must answer the call to deliver a more empathetic and emotionally-connected healthcare experience for all humans, benefiting patients, families, providers, and staff.

The answer to the endless debate: There is no us versus them. Humans come first.  

Understanding emotion as the catalyst for change 

Taking a holistic view of empathy as a concept includes the hard work of listening, understanding, and acting. Doing so is hardest when you do not resonate with the person in front of you. Empathy is also not limited to the interactions between two people – it can – and does – involve teams, processes, and organizations as a whole.

In healthcare, we have long been focused on quality and safety. Hospitals stand up innumerable processes to ensure it and adopt high reliability frameworks and just cultures to enable it. Without a doubt, safety is core to a healthcare experience. And yet, patients already expect to be safe when they come to a hospital. Not causing a major medical error is table stakes and will not be the story patients tell when they leave. Instead, they will tell stories of how hospital staff made them feel. Think of the last story about health you told or heard, it was likely one powered by emotion. So, if organizations want to differentiate their services and grow in the market, emotions matter.

It is imperative that healthcare providers, teams, and the full entity understand the emotions of their patients; their goals, preferences, and how they experience their care. Not as a nice to have, but an essential component to human centered care that cares for the whole person. Through the use of technology and analyzing data, healthcare entities can learn about their patients from the start of their healthcare journey. If done effectively and thoughtfully, this application can also free up staff to do the most intimate of care. Further, data can inform more personalized care for the patient, their caregivers, and their family – whether how the patient prefers to be communicated with, to support programs, or to access channels.

We are fundamentally emotional beings who evaluate our experiences based on how they make us feel. Our emotions drive decision-making, perceptions, and behaviors in all aspects of life, and healthcare is no exception. In fact, 80% of prospective patients use online reviews and look to the opinions and feelings of others when choosing a new healthcare provider. The recognition of emotion is vital to providing human-centered healthcare experiences. Thus, it’s necessary to develop empathy and listen in a way that supports efforts to heal both those being cared for and those providing care.

The ROI of empathy – starting with retention

The impact of harnessing data to improve patient care has lasting implications for both providers and patients alike. When patients feel valued, heard, and are treated with empathy, they are more likely to stay with a provider, recommend that provider, and engage in health behaviors. In fact, one third of patients will skip or avoid care based on how they were treated by their healthcare provider or staff, which is problematic as healthcare avoidance worsens health conditions. Leading with empathy and curiosity about the human with XYZ condition is the right thing to do and creates value for all parties.

Moreover, it’s not only patients who benefit when emotions are heard. Healthcare workers are healers and went into their profession to make a difference. With 75% of healthcare workers expected to leave the profession by 2025, it’s imperative to emotionally connect to our own people, to foster their connections with each other, the organization, and their patients. Too often we ask for their opinions in annual surveys and change does not follow. This erodes trust in organizations and people. Research suggests people are less likely to leave organizations when they feel strategically aligned and they have opportunities to grow and develop. Understanding what this tactically means across different populations and then co-designing solutions is key for long term engagement.

Commit to listening to emotions and values today for a better tomorrow 

Never has there been a time in healthcare when listening and understanding have been more critical. Issues of today are divisive, complex, and layered without easy solutions. We cannot possibly begin to fix without slowing down to listen through every channel available. It’s about more meaningful listening for the emotions and values at stake. Only when we understand those, can we operationalize empathy and act in ways that will make people feel seen, valued, and heard.

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