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Empathy Can Help Hospitalists Improve Patient Experience, Outcomes

From: The Hospitalist, July 2013

An empathetic approach to inpatient care can boost satisfaction scores

by Burke T. Kealey, MD, SFHM

Dr. Kealey

Empathy: ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

In today’s increasingly hyper-measured healthcare world, we are looking more and more at measures of patient outcomes. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) touts the Triple Aim principle as the lens through which we should be approaching our work. The Triple Aim is the three-part goal and simultaneous focus of improving the health of the community and our patients, improving affordability of care, and finally and perhaps most elusively, improving the patient experience. Who wouldn’t want to hit on these admirable goals? How do we do it?

In approaching the health aspect of the Triple Aim, we, as hospitalists, have tried-and-true frameworks of process improvement. Clinical research and peer-reviewed publication advance the knowledge of what medicines and procedures can improve care. Although powerful and generally truthful, this system results in a slow diffusion of practice improvement, not to mention idiosyncratic and nonstandardized care. This has led to a new toolkit of improvement techniques: continuous quality improvement, Lean, and Six Sigma. We learn and adopt these and watch our scores go up at a steady pace.

If all we focus on is the scores, and we lack faith that the scores represent the true experience of patients, then how can we ever truly create a more satisfying experience for our patients?

Improving affordability has its challenges, some huge, like our basic cultural ethos that “more is better.” Yet affordability is still something we can grasp. It is rooted in systems we are all familiar with, from basic personal finance to resource allocation to generally accepted accounting principles. We all can grasp that the current system of pay for widgets is teetering at the edge, just waiting for a shove from CMS to send it to its doom. Once this happens, affordability likely will become something we can start to make serious headway against.

Improving the experience of patients and families is perhaps the toughest of the three and where I would like to focus.

Patients First

First, a question: Are experience scores reflective of the true experience of a patient?

Two weeks after discharge, when patients receive their HCAHPS questionnaire in the mail, do they remember the details of their stay? And who was their doctor anyway? The cardiologist who placed a stent? The on-call doctor? The hospitalist who visited them every morning? If all we focus on is the scores, and we lack faith that the scores represent the true experience of patients, then how can we ever truly create a more satisfying experience for our patients?

I believe that the answer lies with empathy. What’s unique about this part of the Triple Aim is that many of the answers are within us. Gaining empathy with our patients requires us to ask questions of them and also to ask questions of ourselves. It requires us to invoke ancient methods of learning and thinking, like walking in another’s shoes for a day or using the Golden Rule. Experience doesn’t lend itself to being taught by PowerPoint. It must be lived and channeled back and out through our emotional selves as empathy.

Using the wisdom of patients themselves is one way to understand their needs and develop the empathy to motivate us to change how we do things in health care. Many organizations around the country have used some form of patient focus group to help learn from patients. Park Nicollet, a large health system in Minnesota, has incorporated family councils in nearly every clinic and care area. They usually are patients or caregivers from the area, bound together by a common disease or location. They dedicate their time, often meeting monthly, to share their stories, give opinions on care processes, and even to shape the design of a care area. Currently, there are more than 100 patient councils in the system, and the number continues to grow.

Film, when done skillfully, is a powerful tool in helping us gain empathy. The Cleveland Clinic has produced an amazing short film called “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.” It follows patients, families, and staff through the care system. As the camera focuses on each person, floating text appears near them, explaining their situation, inner thoughts, or fears, all overlaid by an emotional piano score. Tears will flow. Understanding follows.

Jim Merlino, MD, Cleveland Clinic’s chief experience officer, explains, “We need to understand that being on the other side of health care is frightening, and our job, our responsibility as people responsible for other people, is to help ease that fear.” Cleveland Clinic has done a remarkable job in reminding us why we went in to health care.

Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame produced a reality series called “30 Days.” In each episode, a participant spent 30 days in the shoes of another. In the “Life in a Wheelchair” episode, Super Bowl-winning football player Ray Crockett lives in a wheelchair for 30 days and explores what it is like going through recovery and the healthcare system. He meets several rehabbing paraplegics and quadriplegics and accompanies them through their daily lives at home and the hospital. Viewers gain empathy directly in seeing these patients struggle to get better and work with the healthcare system. We also gain empathy watching Crockett gain empathy. The combination is powerful.

In Patients’ Shoes

In addition to listening and observation, we can begin to literally walk in the shoes of our patients.

I recently attended IHI’s International Forum in London. The National Health Service (NHS) in England is using a new tool to help providers understand what it is like for geriatric patients who must navigate the healthcare system with diminished senses and capabilities. Providers put on an age-simulation suit (www.age-simulation-suit.com) that mimics the impairments of aging. Special goggles fog the vision and narrow the visual field. Head mobility is reduced so that it becomes difficult to see beyond the field cuts. Earmuffs reduce high-frequency hearing and the ability to understand speech clearly. The overall suit impedes motion and reduces strength. Thick gloves make it difficult to coordinate fine motions. Wearing this suit and trying to go through a hospital or clinic setting instantly makes the wearer gain empathy for our patients’ needs.

Most important, be a patient. SHM immediate past president Shaun Frost, MD, SFHM, whose personal mission during his tenure was to help the society understand patient experience, explained it best to me. “In one episode in the hospital with a family member, I learned more about patient experience than all the reading and self-educating I have been doing for the last year.”

I think any of us who have been a patient in the hospital, or accompanied a loved one, comes out frustrated that the healthcare system is so convoluted and lacking in clarity for patients. Then there is often a sense of renewal, hopefully,followed by evangelism to spread their newfound empathy to others in the system.

In our busy work lives as hospitalists, it isn’t easy turning our daily focus away from efficiency and productivity. Yet we must always remain mindful of that core idea every one of us wrote down as the heart of our personal statements on our applications to medical school. Do you remember writing something like this? “I want to help people and relieve suffering in their time of need.”

Empathy is the start of our work.


Dr. Kealey is medical director of hospital specialties at HealthPartners Medical Group in St. Paul, Minn. He is an SHM board member and SHM president-elect.


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