Part One: The Healing Power of Empathy

Last week, I spoke on Courageous Conversations on the Smiles at Sea cruise to the Bahamas. I’m not much of a cruiser myself, but I confess that it’s not a terrible day at the office either. At dinner one night, I discussed the concept of empathy and patient communication with a PhD pharmacist who works in Oncology and teaches Residents.
While he is truly impressed with the dedication, talent, and level of clinical and scientific education his recent students possess, he lamented the poor level of skill his students exhibit in their ability to connect, relate, and communicate effectively with their patients. He feels strongly that, these days, empathy is under-valued and under-taught in our medical education system.

He spoke of the intense education he had received years ago from his professors who were adamant about the importance of developing an empathetic, patient, and kind bedside manner. He recalled being pulled out of a treatment or hospital room by his instructor and read the “riot act” about how to “lift his head up out of his clinical notes, lab reports, and medical jargon and converse with understanding, ask careful questions, and demonstrate empathy both physically and verbally. Even though these new students had apparently not received the same education, he found himself pulling them out of patient situations to educate in the moment and sending them back in to try again with a new awareness of the role they play in the patient experience.

But it turns out, communicating with empathy isn’t just helpful in improving the patient experience. Numerous studies show that it also improves actual patient outcomes, both short- and long-term. Equally important, some of the same studies show that it simultaneously improves the overall job satisfaction of the healthcare providers themselves and drastically lowers burnout rates. We also know it can be trained and taught.

After teaching communication skills in healthcare and business for over 25 years, I’ve come to understand that most people view empathy as a soft skill. They shouldn’t. Because it isn’t. Empathy should not be optional… just something we do, if we have the time. In healthcare, it should be a requirement and part of your expectations and ongoing training.
Here’s the rub. We all want to be empathetic. It’s the intention of most professionals. When I ask professionals in business (doctors, hygienists, business owners, managers, administrators) if they feel they are empathetic and communicate their empathy well… most give me a resounding, “Yes!” And then I observe them with very different results. In the training world, we call this conscious incompetence.

So, how do you motivate someone, especially a clinician, who already feels they are a great, empathetic communicator with a terrific bedside manner to get training on empathy and communication? You show them exit interviews of patients whom they thought loved them. Cleveland Clinic did just that.

They canvassed patients specifically about their experience of these skills and invited clinicians who were scored low by patients to take specific training to improve. After watching the patient interviews, they came to the training. Cleveland Clinic brought in clinicians who had the highest scores in the country to teach those who didn’t… and it worked. Evaluating 1500 clinicians post training, they found that validated empathy scores went up and professional burnout across the board went down. Patients said they felt more engaged, cared for, better known, and clearer about next steps.

Look. It’s not easy to be a doctor, nurse, assistant, hygienist, dentist in healthcare today. There are so many details to get right- coding, documentation, HR, HIPPA, OSHA, rapidly changing technology and treatments, and scores and scores of patients with complicated insurances who are increasingly well educated and demanding. We’ve essentially taken people who were, for the most part, drawn to the industry because they wanted to help, heal, and connect with people, and we’ve turned them into note takers, insurance specialists, typists, and data entry pros. If we want them to practice more empathetically, we have to make empathy a top priority, provide the training, measure the results, and get creative about making space in the system to allow for the actual conversations and concentration it will take to pull off this big, bold objective.

In next week’s MMS, I’ll discuss specific steps you can take to improve the empathy your team delivers in their communications with patients and one another. Don’t miss it!