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.
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.
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.