Care Transformation Center Blog

Empathy: A common ingredient for happy patients, staff, and margins

Consumerism and patient experience are big buzzwords in health care right now, but it was still a surprise when I saw them in action.

Recently, a friend's mother was diagnosed with cancer. She chose the hospital that was most convenient for her treatment. The medical care she received was adequate, but she felt like a widget in a cancer-treatment factory. The missing ingredient: empathy.

Another hospital offered a more patient-centered approach. The hospital was 40 miles farther from her home, but despite the additional driving—and the piles of paperwork and multiple phone calls needed to change the location of her treatment—she switched facilities. Being supported as a human being was worth the hassle during such a difficult time in her life.

Why empathy is better for patients—and your bottom line

Empathy is critical to success in a world where patients increasingly act like traditional consumers and vote with their feet. Empathetic connections forge stronger relationships between caregivers and patients, enabling patients to feel comfortable giving honest feedback about their needs. By treating patients as unique individuals and not just a compilation of conditions, caregivers can better anticipate common sources of patient anxiety and take steps to mitigate them.

If empathetic care seems touchy-feely to you, consider this: a recent review of clinical trials revealed that a doctor's bedside manner can greatly impact patients' health, aiding their efforts to lose weight, lower their blood pressure, or manage painful symptoms. Empathy also impacts your organization’s bottom line by fostering patient loyalty and affecting patient satisfaction scores, which in turn impact value-based purchasing penalties.

Despite how critical building a culture of empathy is, it’s not an easy thing to do. In his recent book, Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, philosopher Roman Krznaric says that though our brains are wired for empathy, it doesn’t always come easily.

Younger nurses often lack direct experience, having never been hospitalized or had a loved one recently hospitalized. Meanwhile, experienced nurses struggle with empathy for the opposite reason. Over the course of their careers, many have cared for so many patients they have developed compassion fatigue.

How to cultivate a culture of empathy

Cultivating empathy requires both high-level culture change and specific, focused tactics. An empathetic culture starts with senior leaders, but patients experience the health system through individual encounters with their caregivers. Melding top-down and bottom-up strategies is essential to developing an organization that prioritizes the patient.

Training ensures proper execution of empathetic techniques and reinforces the importance of customer service. In addition to training, specific tactics, such as scripting or leadership rounding, directly impact patients’ perception of their experience.

Building a culture of empathy is no easy task. Even high-performing hospitals tell us that it takes time and requires continuous upkeep. But the effort is worth it. Empathy makes your patients, staff, and bottom line happier all at the same time. What could be more valuable than that?

Why so many patient experience efforts fail

Learn why so many patient experience initiatives fail and how a data-driven, closed-loop approach led to a 40% increase in HCAHPS scores.