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Real reasons to invest in empathy for health care leadership and the workforce

Training for empathy can improve patient experience and outcomes, enhance the provider experience and reduce burnout. And it will be a competitive advantage in a post-pandemic world.

Tom Sullivan | April 7, 2021

When Vice President Kamala Harris praised President Joe Biden’s empathy as an early trademark of his presidency, it signaled that empathy is becoming a social movementThat’s true in health care as well.  

“Empathy is a really big idea right now and I can tell you people from many industries — police forces, educators, veterinarians and others — are inquiring about empathy training,” said Helen Riess, MD, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Empathetics, which provides empathy and interpersonal skills training for medical professionals. “It’s really kind of exploding. The whole world is crying out for a more compassionate health care system.” 

Catalyst described empathy as “a superpower in the future of work,” in an October 2020 report, while Google Chief Innovation Evangelist, Frederik Pferdt said: “empathy is the skill of the future.”  

“Practicing empathy every day as a business leader helps you understand what your employees need and what your immediate team actually needs right now,” Pferdt added, according to a late January article. “Putting yourself into their situation, to really understand how they think and feel, helps you come up with better solutions for your employees.” 

Yet, “empathy is an underutilized differentiator,” according to Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends report. “Understanding how people feel is an essential, but often an overlooked part of the experience,” Adode explained. “Analyzing and anticipating their reactions at decision points and during moments of friction will make the process work better for both sides.”  

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While Adobe and Google are focused on empathy among leadership ranks with a particular focus on advancing innovation, those are not the only realms where empathy is gaining traction. Sutter Health, for example, used empathy training, which has been shown in randomized controlled trials at Harvard, as a pilot to improve patient experience in Gould Medical Group, according to P. Adam Dodd, MD, Medical Director of Patient Experience and Co-Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  

“Our target was to take middle-of-the-road providers, those earning satisfaction scores in the 50th percentile, and raise them to the 75th percentile,” Dodd said.  

In the pilot, the OB/GYN department increased its ‘Would you Recommend the Practice score from 88.2 percent to 90.4 percent and achieved a 90-day 91st percentile rate with 62 percent of clinicians above the 50th percentile. The metric “Provider spends enough time with patient,” rose from 90.8 precent to 92.5 percent and the “Clerk/Receptionist Staff helpful” measure improved from 79.8 percent to 83.6 percent. 

“Patient experience is not linear and therefore you really want to move people as close as you can to become apostles on a mission saying how great the experience you deliver is,” Dodd said. “Whatever you’re selling, serving or doing, you want people to speak highly of that.”   

Rocio Huerta-Camara, Manager of Community Health at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation said the pilot’s success also goes beyond the improvement in patient satisfaction scores. 

“The financial piece of this experience work translates to our patients and providers. If you take care of your people, teach them empathy for self, it will translate to our business because our patients will keep coming back,” Huerta-Camara said. “That equals loyal patients and that’s why we do it. 

Health care is too personal for empathy not to be a top value because people will remember much more about how they were treated and how they were made to feel than outcomes.

Helen Riess, MD, Empathetics

Dodd explained that patient dissatisfaction threatens profitability, while there is a correlation between patient satisfaction and loyalty in primary care and patient satisfaction increases people’s likelihood to adhere to care plans.  

What’s more, behavioral changes such as listening well, expressing curiosity about a patient, or not striking a posture that indicates your mind is already moving on, such as standing with your hand on the doorknob, can be taught, added Riess, who has been researching empathy for more than two decades. And she said doing so goes beyond getting people to say nice things about you.   

“Empathic communication improves patient experience and improves provider experience because if you show that you care you get the reward from the person recognizing that. People have better outcomes because when there’s empathic care, patients tell the truth, ‘I didn’t take the pills or they make me sick,’ so you get better outcomes, greater adherence to medications, less burnout,” Riess said. “There are fewer malpractice claims because when people like their doctors, if there’s an honest error, they’re less likely to sue.”  

After the initial pilot, Sutter is currently considering how to expand plans to expand beyond the initial 57 providers involved in the program. Dodd adds that Sutter is targeting the entire Central Valley region of Northern California because all the facilities are dealing with issues related to recruiting and burnout.  

Read more: Can community health workers and empathy improve inequity and reduce disparities?

As Sutter expands the empathy and experience initiative to reengage patients amid the COVID-19 recovery phase as patients fear subsides and they want to come back into physical facilities, Huerta-Camara expects more clinicians and staff to want the training.  

“They will be open to being helped to do what they do better, to bring calm to their world as we’ve made history in this pandemic,” Huerta-Camara said. Likewise, Dodd is anticipating that patients will both become savvier about shopping for health care and have more options.  

“The thing about video care is that you don’t have to go back to your same doctor in your same geography,” Dodd said. “Patients can find a doctor in San Diego or the Bay Area. The potential for that is huge, it gives us new thinking about working harder at the connection with people, reading their mood. Sharing that you care is different if you’re face to face, so we have to be able to do that more effectively with virtual care.”  

The practice of empathy, Riess noted, is not just about being nice. Instead, it is an approach that requires the entire health system to succeed.  

“It’s about how you’re treating patients and employees, how teams are treating one another, how managers are treating peopleIt affects every member of the organization and whether they feel connected in a meaningful way or you really just have cogs in a wheel coming in doing their job, Riess said. “Health care is too personal for empathy not to be a top value because people will remember much more about how they were treated and how they were made to feel than outcomes.”  

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, EVP & Editor-in-Chief of Digital Content

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website. Contact: toms@healthevolution.com or @SullyHIT on Twitter.