Is empathy the missing piece in healthcare?

In 2005, Dr. Toby Cosgrove MD., CEO of Cleveland Clinic was speaking at Harvard’s Business school. An MBA student, Kara Medoff Barnett, told Dr. Cosgrove how her father who also is a physician had decided on the Mayo Clinic instead of Cleveland Clinic for his heart valve repair. Barnett went on to tell Dr. Cosgrove that while Cleveland Clinic’s outcomes for the procedure was the best, her father chose Mayo Clinic instead for its favorable reputation for empathetic care. Barnett informed Dr. Cosgrove, “Cleveland Clinic was known for a lack of empathy towards patients. Dr. Cosgrove, she asked, “do you teach empathy?”

Dr. Cosgrove was stunned. As a result of this question Dr. Cosgrove realized that now Cleveland Clinic needed to do something different. He first began by asking himself “What is empathy?” Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Next, w he created a Chief Experience Officer. Not all employees at Cleveland Clinic are doctors or a nurse. However, the organization realized that they’re all caregivers and they’re all part of a team. This is when the employee attitude changed for the better.

Here are some useful ways healthcare providers can deliver empathetic care:

  • Greet patients warmly while making appointments or arriving at the doctor’s office or hospital.
  • Some Emergency Departments give patients the option to make appointments online and wait from home.
  • Sometimes doctor’s offices can be hard to find. If someone looks lost, offer to point them in the right direction or show them where they can find their appointment.
  • Introduce yourself to the patient and ask them how you can assist them.

Meaningful interactions can be compassionate, kind and caring. Let’s take a closer look at Cleveland Clinic’s podcast called Patients as Partners in Design, Strategy and Innovation. (my.clevelandclinic.org) In this podcast providers partner with patients and determine what areas interest them. Then they get matched up to project specific work, a continuous improvement project or committee work.

There were two projects that were highlighted in this podcast revolving around the theme of empathy. The first project was empathy in architecture. Architects designed a new building for the Neurology department. Unfortunately, prior to designing the building the architects didn’t realize that some neurology patients are disabled. In some cases, patients are using walkers or wheelchairs. The first obstacle was not all the doors were automated and made it difficult to maneuver for disabled patients. As a consequence, the patient group challenged all the architects to spend a day in the hospital buildings in wheelchairs. After the challenge the architects came back and shared everything that they learned. This experience really made the patients and families feel heard and perhaps more appreciated.

The second project that was highlighted was the medical bill. The idea was to better understand the patient’s response to medical billing. The challenge was a large volume of patient’s went through four cycles of medical bills. The next step was collections would continue the process. Finally, the patient would pay all or part of the bill.

Why didn’t the patient’s pay the bill sooner? the providers wondered. In-depth interviews with the patients revealed that patients couldn’t pay their portion due or patients didn’t understand which amount was their responsibility to pay on the bill. The medical bill was complicated and difficult to understand.

One of the lessons learned was that trust is fragile. This was especially, evident after one patient provided feedback stating “I trust you with my life. I’d never seen anyone other than you, and I’m quite certain you’ve taken advantage of me financially.” As a result, it was realized the design of the bill was the source of the problem. The medical bill was revised to be simple and show clear estimates. There was also real time insurance verification and the option to pay the bill wherever you are.

In both of these projects the provider exercised their empathy by really listening to the patients. The empathy in architecture educated and challenged the architects to design the building for all patient’s needs. This includes disabled patients as well. The medical billing project revealed the format was too difficult to understand and was redesigned to be simpler and reflect clear estimates with the patient in mind. When the provider really listened to the patient it allowed them to make reasonable improvements that better served the patients. This ties into Dr. Cosgrove’s belief “We cannot forget to put the patients first.”

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