Empathy and The Patient Experience

Empathy and Patient ExperiencePerhaps more than any other location we will visit while traveling on this earth, a hospital setting imparts the broad expanse of emotions experienced in humanity.  From the exquisite joy and blessing of the birth of a child to the final breaths raggedly taken by someone whose time on this earth has become too short.  Healthcare institutions easily become for many the cathedral where our mortality becomes all too real and where journeys are launched to find answers to life’s most perplexing questions.

Much of the healthcare world today has become openly obsessed with the concept of the Patient Experience.  It has been perhaps the single most non technological centered advancement in healthcare in decades, and patients are the direct beneficiaries of this focus.  Most every hospital and healthcare facility across the country has set aside resources to focus on improving the patient’s perception, involvement and healing outcomes.

Certainly healthcare as a whole, and patients specifically, have benefitted from this focus.  Patients are being engaged in the development of their care plans and healthcare institutions are turning the focus of their facilities towards a patient centered healing environment.  A struggle many healthcare facilities wrestle with is defining what patient satisfaction actually is.  Sometimes they equate patient happiness with patient satisfaction.  They are not the same thing.  Hospitals allocate millions of dollars to establishing valet parking programs, build beautiful fountains cascading through the lobby, place animal towels in patient rooms, and provide the ability for us to eat food 24 hours a day.  All noble pursuits in providing comfort and ease for patients.  However as Patrick Ryan, CEO of Press Ganey noted; “Patients are looking for respect. To have nurses and Dr’s communicate with them and to have their care coordinated.  Hospitals are starting to look at the patient experience as a complete package in reducing suffering and reducing anxiety.  And when you do that, you look across the entire continuum of care, from the first phone call to the patient’s being discharged.”

At the Cleveland Clinic, they have initiated a new position to strengthen the healthcare experience.  The position provided is a “C” suite level of importance and the individual charged with managing it carries the title, Chief Experience Officer.  Many hospitals today are working to identify how to best address the patient experience.  To some extent, healthcare marketing has encouraged the belief that new shiny bells and whistles installed throughout the hospital are what drive satisfaction.  Hospitals on a tight budget worry that they can’t afford to implement these very things and will be left behind in the process.  However the analysis of the data surrounding resources put into the patient experience and the results gained from that investment show an interesting direction for the future.

Douglas Wood, M.D., director of strategy and policy for the Mayo Clinic sees the patient experience changing its focus going forward.  “We will realize fairly quickly that we need to change the focus away from the experience within the hospitals and clinics to the true, complete patient experience.  It’s nice to have hospitals that have lots of amenities but, really, not too many of us look forward to scheduling a stay in a hospital as though we would look forward to going on a cruise.”

Human capital is one of the single most valuable resources a hospital holds.  Disney spends significant resources in recruiting, identifying, hiring, and keeping the right people working at their locations.  They look for individuals whose natural instincts are to engage with and care about others.  They don’t look to hire someone who is “just looking for a job”.  They are looking for someone who LOVES doing the job.

Hospitals should be just as concerned, if not more, in hiring the individual who is applying because they want to be an important part of the healing process.

When you walk down any city street, stroll through any crowded mall or ride on a bus or commuter train, we come across hundreds of fellow human beings whose story is often kept inside.  In the anonymity of society it is easy to pull back around our own world and not consider what is happening with a neighbor, a co-worker, or others that are outside of our tightly guarded circle of family and friends.  We have a hard enough time just walking around in our own shoes sometimes and perhaps unconsciously push away from our thoughts what it must be like in someone else’s.

Empathy is a gift that is essential in healthcare.  It is not something that can be created from policies or mission statements.  Teaching and training can sensitize someone to the need to use it, but it can rarely be taught from a classroom.  It is that very trait which separated Mother Teresa from some of those who managed healthcare processes and facilities.  It was her empathy, love and concern for those that she came across in her work that drove her forward.  She was concerned for all she met as human beings and how she could lift them from their current condition.

Today healthcare and hospitals are pushing towards that model.  Empathy, love and concern for each individual within our daily walk is becoming the motivating focus.  Hospitals are full of individuals who are on one path or another which often consists of discomfort, pain, and struggle.  It might be physical, emotional, spiritual or a combination of all of them.  Do we have empathy for their journey as we do our daily walk thru their lives?  The family members and friends who attend their side are often called upon for support, while perhaps experiencing even their own internal struggles that might be associated with care of their loved one, or something in their own world going on outside the hospital walls.  Physicians, nurses, techs, and hospital staff are counted on to be the support team for the patients but may also be suffering the effects of human grief associated with the care, or external experiences that drive their emotions…. All while maintaining their professional decorum.

My Grandson recently was born at a well-respected healthcare institution in a major city.  Within hours of his birth, he had acquired a negative gram bacteria.  The situation quickly became life threatening for the new born.  The hospital staff quickly began to focus on the legal aspects of what was happening and what needed to be done to protect the institution and personal reputations of those who had been involved.  Empathy for a worried new mother or father were displaced with other management oversight duties.  Questions went unanswered and crises management became the focus instead of care for the patient and family.

Hours later a transfer was made by the transport team under life supporting conditions to a Children’s Hospital.  The focus immediately became two fold; Take care of the patient’s medical needs and provide information and emotional support to the parents.  Over the coming month all patient care was done in conjunction with the parents who were made to feel a part of the support team.  On good days the nurses celebrated, on tough days Dr’s wept.  Feeling and Empathy were a part of each day.  On the day he passed away I watched as every nurse & tech who had worked with our Grandson came to say their goodbye’s and offer heartfelt condolences to the family.  When the Dr whispered it was time to remove the life support system, I watched as tears streamed down his face as he removed tubing and order the equipment shut down.  I looked into the heartbroken face of the other Dr who had rushed in from other duties as she explained to a grieving family what they could expect to experience as life slipped away.

Empathy was in full bloom among the physicians, nurses and staff.  They didn’t do these things because of some hospital training, or policy.  It was inborn in the compassion and love they had for the work they performed.  As we sat at the funeral days later, I was surprised to see two of the NICU nurses walk in.  They had arranged on their own time to attend.  As they embraced and shed tears again, I asked them why they had left work to come.  They shared that they always look forward to the day they can walk their patients and families out to the car for a final goodbye and the good feeling they have at those moments.  Today was their opportunity to “walk out” their patient that they never got to do.

This is what the patient experience strives to be.  How many times do we walk thru a hospital and not consider what each person, patient or family member, might be experiencing?  How many times have we acted like our “work” was the important daily business, and not pondered the human experience that is playing out right before our eyes.   Before you start your day, stop and think about the lives you can affect through how you act.  Being a healthcare worker is not for the timid.  It can be hectic, overwhelming and tiring for even the strongest of us all.  Use your professional skills to the upmost in advancing your abilities and providing excellent patient care.  Then remember along the way that it is often a very thin line that separates those who provide the healing from being those in need of healing.   Empathy toward others provides the deepest level of emotional healing and support that can be provided to those around us.

There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in – that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.  –Mother Teresa

 

About the Author:

Rock Jensen, Senior Consultant, has been engaged in hospital environmental services, patient transport, laundry, food, grounds, communication, safety, security, and facilities management since the mid- 1990s.