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Empathy in Healthcare: 7 Benefits

Empathy is the latest buzzword in the business world.
Ad Age is calling it

“the official marketing buzzword of 2017” – but empathy in healthcare? It’s so important that the two co-exist. The Harvard Business Review has been compiling a list, ranking the most and least empathetic companies since 2014.

Do you agree with the list of top 15? – source

Empathy is more than just a fad or a trendy piece of jargon to throw around, though. There is solid evidence connecting empathy to higher rates of business success, among other positive metrics.

There’s likely no industry where empathy matters more than healthcare. Healthcare companies can, and should, be paying careful attention to how empathetic they are in terms of company culture, in overall messaging, and especially in the consumer/patient experience.

 

What is Empathy?

Empathy is one of those words that most people think they’re familiar with but we might all have slightly different definitions. This is made even more murky by the tendency to confuse empathy with related concepts like compassion and sympathy.

The old cliche of walking in another person’s shoes can be a helpful way to understand what empathy is. It’s being aware of another person’s feelings. Empathy is understanding, or trying to understand, another person’s perspective – and potentially even feeling what they are feeling.

Bestselling author, speaker, and scholar Brené Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.”

Empathy in healthcare can be thought of as clinical empathy instead of just empathy. In the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD describes clinical empathy as a more detached mode of understanding. The Society for General Internal Medicine describes empathy in healthcare as:

“the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.”

In other words, clinical empathy is an intellectual understanding of the emotions of others.

To further clarify, here are definitions of compassion and sympathy:

Compassion is closer to empathy than sympathy is, but they are still quite different. Derived from Latin, compassion means “to suffer with.” Compassion usually involves a desire or drive to alleviate the suffering of the other person. However, the intellectual understanding of the other person’s emotions may be missing with compassion.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is an emotional response to the suffering of another person. It is when you realize and understand that something bad has happened to someone else and you imagine that pain. Unlike with empathy, you don’t actually feel that pain or even try to understand how it feels. You might feel sad and you may feel concern or tenderness for the person but you remain detached both intellectually and emotionally. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine describes sympathy as a “self-orientated perspective” in contrast to the other-orientated perspective of empathy.

Empathy is unique in combining the intellectual perspective with emotional understanding. Compassion and sympathy are reactive responses while empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed.

 

Why Empathy in Healthcare is Important

From the perspective of the patient or health consumer, so much of the healthcare experience is centered around difficult things. Being sick, whether with a cold or with cancer, can be annoying at best and terrifying at worst. It’s stressful to be sick.

Even in the happy moments in healthcare – having a baby or going into remission – emotions tend to be high and will usually have an undercurrent of darker emotions like fear.  Add onto that stress the complexities of navigating the healthcare system, from insurance to bills to paperwork.

Then, there is healthcare literacy. The average patient might be overwhelmed. “Fake news” is a major problem in healthcare and confusion is another distressing emotion many patients might be feeling.

But does it actually make a difference when the patient and health consumer is treated with empathy?

Empirically, yes!

 

What Happens When You Show Empathy in Healthcare?

Empathy in healthcare is more than just a nice idea. There are a number of tangible results that healthcare companies can expect when they make the effort to be more empathetic.

For the purpose of not only driving more business to healthcare companies, but also to bring more patient-centric solutions to market that health consumers will actually use and adopt, here are seven benefits of employing empathy in healthcare:

 

  1. Better patient outcomes.
    A number of studies have shown that patients have better outcomes when they are treated by physicians with a higher degree of empathy. One example is a 2012 study from Italy that specifically found that diabetic patients treated by doctors with more empathy had “a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.”

Better outcomes for diabetes patients – source

 

  1. Better patient compliance.

Perhaps a major reason for better patient outcomes is the higher rate of patient compliance when they are treated empathetically. Feeling seen and heard makes patients more likely to listen to and follow the recommended course of action. This can be explained in part by trust.

When patients are treated with empathy, trust builds. This trust makes patients more likely to follow provider recommendations, to take medications as prescribed, and to make positive lifestyle changes.

This also means better patient or customer retention. When there is trust, the patient is far less likely to turn elsewhere for their healthcare needs.

The research is clear – source

  

  1. Better patient satisfaction.
    No matter the type of company, there is typically a goal of customer satisfaction. It’s why “user experience” is another popular buzzword. Not surprisingly, when healthcare customers are treated empathetically, they tend to be happier.

Empathy in healthcare can even potentially leave a patient feeling satisfied after what would typically be a stressful experience, like a call with a billing department or an insurance company about a medical bill. Being sick can be a dehumanizing experience.

An empathetic experience can be humanizing and this shift tends to leave the patient happier. Patient satisfaction in healthcare is a major problem at present.

A recent survey by Prophet made that abundantly clear when it found that a shocking 81% of consumers are unsatisfied with their healthcare experience.

Some troubling statistics about patient satisfaction – source

 

  1. Better communication.

Empathy is a kind of nonverbal communication and its presence automatically improves communication. Empathy can help deepen understanding of complex topics, both because an empathetic explainer will notice when a point isn’t getting through and will react accordingly, and because a patient or customer may feel less hesitant about asking questions.

Poor physician-patient communication is cited as a contributing factor in at least 40% of malpractice suits, according to the Wall Street Journal. Closing the communication gap would go a long way.

An easy-to-remember acronym for practicing empathy – source

 

  1. Improved perception.

Empathy in healthcare can help boost how well a company is perceived in the mind of a customer. Research has shown that being treated empathically leads to “tangible increases in trust.”

Being seen as trustworthy is a primary goal for most healthcare companies and empathy is one of the fastest ways to get there. Perception is another big problem in healthcare right now.

The Prophet survey found that nearly half of respondents believe the healthcare system is more concerned about money than people’s well-being. To change this perception, empathy is key.

There is a big gap between provider beliefs and patient experience – source

 

  1. Attracting and retaining better employees.

Belinda Parmar, creator of the Lady Geek Global Empathy Index explained to Forbes that more empathetic companies have cultures where their employees thrive. This helps to attract the best talent and to retain that talent.

Reducing turnover is a huge source of cost savings for any company, and a company culture rich in empathy will have less turnover. There even tends to be a boost to overall productivity when the company is known for ranking high in empathy.

A study from Businessolver found that:

  • 40% of respondents would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer
  • 56% of respondents would stay in their jobs if they felt valued, and
  • 64% would be willing to work for less pay for a more empathetic employer.

Additionally, high percentages of respondents would leave their jobs if their employers were to become less empathetic. A culture of empathy tends to make employees happier and more engaged, with less risk of burnout.

Do you want to risk losing employees? – source

 

  1. Growth and higher earnings.
    ROI is an important metric for any business but ROE, or Return on Empathy, may be equally important. Empathy in healthcare is something that industry companies can and should invest in.

 

A clear link between empathy and earnings – source

 

You can hire for empathy, train for empathy, and build a culture around empathy. All of this can lead to growth, increased profits, and huge savings.

The HBR empathy study showed the top 10 most empathetic companies “increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings.”

The opposite of empathy is disengagement, and this can be extremely costly. In fact, disengagement costs the US economy $450-500 billion annually.

With empathy, you don’t lose as much money from employee turnover. You also might not have to invest as much in certain kinds of marketing as your improved reputation and trustworthiness will have patients and customers selling you to everyone they know.

If you have a reputation for lacking empathy, it will hurt you. The Businessolver study found that 42% of consumers would refuse to buy something from a company they perceive to lack empathy.

Perception of empathy is key to engaging with consumers – source

 

  

Closing Thoughts

These seven benefits show that empathy in healthcare is not just a soft concept.

It is proven to be something that can boost the overall perception and trustworthiness of the healthcare company while increasing both employee and consumer satisfaction. Patients tend to be more compliant and have better outcomes when their healthcare team is empathetic.

Finally, it just makes good business sense. Empathy in healthcare companies can lead to cost savings and increased growth and profits.

How are you using empathy in healthcare?

 


Kayla is a writer, marketer, and consultant whose work is often informed by her experiences as a patient. As someone living with MS for over a decade, she finds it particularly meaningful to help healthcare companies improve the patient experience.

 

 

  • This is a great blog here. Very informatively present with the images. “The act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” I like the quote in this blog. Caring comes in many ways. Like Caring for poor child’s, poor people and senior. Caring for our seniors is perhaps the greatest responsibility we have. Those who walked before us have given so much and made possible the life we have all enjoying.
    PapayaCare – Assisted Living, Senior Home Care.

  • Kelsey Long

    If empathy in health care is important to patient success and lead to hospital profits, doctor work satisfaction, and other benefits, why are hospitals not taking actions to develop empathetic cultures? Hospitals are large businesses, but are currently not found anywhere on the Harvard Business Review’s top empathetic large companies list. Oftentimes, it is easy to perceive medical errors in health care as a result of recklessness, however, more likely they are a result of systematic problems, processes, and conditions (1). The health care system in the United States was not built upon empathetic practices, so a systemic change is needed to integrate empathy into our health care experience and, thus, improve patient outcomes. If it is true that empathy benefits health care outcomes, it is important to understand what empathetic health care looks like and if it is tangible in our current system.

    The current health care system is fractured and has created a culture in which health professionals are rewarded for their individual efforts. This lack of integration inhibits organizational learning processes from happening in hospitals, inhibits doctors’ ability to learn from other professionals, and from their patients. Doctors are rewarded for their individual accomplishments and there is usually no cross over between practices. As a result, there is no need for doctors to understand their patients to a further extent than what is needed for them to successfully do their job. There is no way to truly empathize with a person without better understanding the determinants that influence them and their complete medical experiences. In order for doctors to treat their patients with empathy or “correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another”, a more integrated approach to medicine needs to be implemented at different layers of our current system.

    A culture of empathy must start from the top with management. There are many aspects that go into quality and successful management, but empathy is often not emphasized. However, successful management must start by creating goals and values in hospitals that drive a culture of empathy. In addition, decisions must be made in consideration of these goals and create an environment that empowers employees to empathize with the people they interact with in their jobs. This can be established in a number of ways. For example, more informal and formal communication check-ins with staff members could help leadership gain insight into staff perspectives and let those perspectives guide decision making. This could also mean creating a supportive culture with a team-based structure or providing more teamwork and patient transparency trainings. Often these things may be expressed through Human Resource policies, but they must first become established by management.

    Once hospital leadership based structures are established that reinforce learning and cross discipline interaction, it is necessary to cultivate a culture of acceptance and open communication between doctors and other health professionals. Interdisciplinary teams are an important way for doctors to more deeply understand patients as well as their colleagues. For these teams to be successful, they must include more than just doctors. For example, social workers, psychiatrists, and nutritionists would all bring unique and challenging views to an interdisciplinary team. Introducing cross-discipline work is important for health professionals to gain more insight into the multiple determinants that affect patient health. In order for interdisciplinary teams to work, they must be established with empathy in mind, creating a team environment where team members’ skills and knowledge can be enhanced. In other industries, teamwork gets more attention and numerous trainings are done to strengthen teamwork, yet health care organizations do not spend sufficient time working on and improving teamwork. Teams that would create empathy would require careful planning. When these teams work well, teams would have time for daily and consistent meetings, they would prioritize talking about patients special needs, circumstances, and how to best care for those needs. Establishing these practices might be time intensive, but it could effectively provide more streamlined and thorough practices and patient outcomes. There are other barriers to this method that would need to be overcome. For example, many professionals do not have schedules that align well for a team meeting. Other barriers may include lack of time (in general) and lack of guidance in how to implement these teams. While these obvious limitations exist, it is worth pursuing solutions because of the substantial benefits.

    Lastly, there is a need of empathy transfer from health care professionals to their patients. This begins with doctors better understanding their patient’s specific needs and circumstances, but it must also be transferred through relationship. Ideally, team meetings would help to develop empathy in doctors toward their patients by increasing their understanding of each individual. As a result, this would lead providers to treat each patient by truly understanding their needs, rather than treating them as capital. In reality, this would mean that doctors may be spending more time with their patients and it is very evident that time is precious in health care organizations. One major limitation to spending more time with each patient is that many doctors are paid fee-for-service, which penalizes them for spending more time doing a good job on few patients in contrast to less time providing more services. One possibility to help combat this tension is to create Accountable Care Organizations that bring together groups of different professionals to ensure more quality and coordinated care is provided to patients. Under this model, doctors are either paid based on the Shared Savings Model or the Risk Model. Both of these payment options provide extra incentives to providing efficient quality care. Regardless of how doctors are paid, in order for patients to feel like their needs are being heard and cared for, there must be someone in the organization who is listening to their needs and ensuring those needs are met. At a minimum, if providers can use the minimal time they have using their more holistic understanding to care for each individual patient, patients will likely feel more supported. Another way that providers could display more empathy to their patients is through more transparency in communicating errors with patients. This requires a careful implementation and would likely require provider training. Transparency, however, if reported carefully and thoughtfully, has the opportunity to create trust between providers and their patients who perceive providers as caring for their needs. These things are not a small task and a lot of structure would need to be put into place to support these ideas.

    In conclusion, empathy in health care is important and tangible steps can be made towards this goal. All people in all levels of our health care system must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts about hospital care and health care practices; creating an empathetic work place is the first place to start. However, there is currently a lack of learning environments that cultivate empathy. Systemic and operational changes are needed in order to create these environments. These changes may require overcoming obstacles that result from the structure of the current systems in places in most hospitals. However, as mentioned, the benefits to creating empathetic environments in our health care organizations have a strong argument for why it is important to institute changes to make this possible. It is possible for small shifts in the goals and values of our health care institutions to have a profound impact on patient outcomes.

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