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Empathy: The backbone of patient experience

Posted by Kristin Baird on May 30th, 2013 • 1 Comment »

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This simple, three-syllable noun packs a huge punch in your patient experience. Patients and their family members are constantly judging you and your organization on your ability to demonstrate empathy on the phone and in face-to-face encounters, and yet there seems to be little going on in the way of empathy training in organizations. Can you teach people to be empathetic? I’m not sure if you can change the way people think about their world, but you can help them be more aware of other’s emotions and deliver appropriate responses.

Teaching empathy involves helping others to not only understand another’s perspective but to consider it before acting. This is the backbone of patient relations. Employees who are so focused on their task list and time may blow past the cues from a patient or family member, leaving the impression that they just don’t care. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I took my mother to an eye appointment after learning of her cancer diagnosis. Since it was a different health system than the one diagnosing the cancer, I felt I should inform her caregivers of the recent hospitalization and emotionally laden diagnosis. As we were walking to the exam room, I told the assistant (who had been caring for my mother for over 6 months of bi-weekly appointments) that my mother has had a rough week. I explained that she was just discharged the day before after a seven-day hospitalization where she learned of her cancer diagnosis. The assistant’s response? “Oh. Well I need you to start with the visual fields test.” And she proceeded to shuffle us to the corresponding office.

I was appalled and actually felt embarrassed that I had even bothered telling her. When I looked at my mom’s expression in response to the assistant’s remark, she looked deflated. She later said, “It was clear she couldn’t care less. She just wanted to make sure my problems didn’t slow down her work.” I’m heartbroken to think that anyone working in a healthcare setting would actually put the checklist before the human being, but it happens more than we may know. We find evidence of this constantly in our mystery shopping assessments.

Later, when the physicians interacted with my mom, they were the epitome of empathy. Both expressed how sorry they were to hear that she was dealing with so much, and they made every attempt to streamline the visit for her comfort. Were these empathetic behaviors learned, or were they innate? It could be a combination.

What I do know is that patients come to us at their most vulnerable times in life, and when emotions are high, so is the need for empathy. You will be building a stronger, more patient-centered workforce when you help your staff recognize and respond to verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate others’ emotional status.

At Baird Group, we teach empathy phrases as part of our customer service training—both for phone and in-person interactions. I know for a fact that having the participants practice empathy phrases in context of various scenarios builds their confidence and helps them feel prepared to deal with a variety of situations where empathy needs to be high. We teach words that wound, words that work, and words that WOW. In doing so, participants learn how they may inadvertently be saying things that wound, as in my mom’s case. We then help them find better approaches that will work or even WOW the patient. In replaying my mom’s interaction, all the assistant needed to say was I’m so sorry. That would have worked.

Help your staff find the words that work and WOW. Your patients will feel cared about and cared for, and your patient scores will show the difference.

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Baird Consulting

One Response to “Empathy: The backbone of patient experience”

  1. Mary Alexander, RN, MSN says:

    WOW! My sentiments exactly. My belief is that the C-suite cannot measure empathy or see compassion, so it has taken a back seat to those things they can measure and see such as wait times or new lobby decor. Frustrating for the staff who are empathetic, and deflating for the patients! I think we should hire for empathy, perhaps even test for empathy prior to accepting students into nursing, therapy, and medical schools.


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