Empathy in Healthcare Is a Waste, Unless It’s a Strategic Focus.

Empathy in Healthcare Is a Waste, Unless It’s a Strategic Focus.

  • Peter Mortensen Peter Mortensen
  • June 24, 2022

Building an organization that is truly wired to care requires a commitment by all.

In our book Wired to Care, we explored how organizations with a widespread sense of empathy for the people they serve invariably outperform their less-connected competitors. People in such organizations have the intuition to sense major change before it happens. They have the sense of purpose to know what’s right to do and what’s wrong to do. And they have the courage to act on risky but vital ideas long before they’ve been validated.

There’s a corollary to all of this, of course: in the absence of empathy, companies calcify, lose touch, and ultimately deliver terrible outcomes. This is particularly true in healthcare delivery. Repeated studies have shown that doctors who take the time to really know their patients and empathize with what they are going through deliver better care and achieve superior outcomes.

Physicians who stand in the doorway of the exam room with a hand on the doorknob, however, deliver care by the numbers, with all the harm that implies. This difference isn’t merely in the quality of the care delivered by physicians. According to a recent Academic Medicine study, diabetes patients of high-empathy doctors were found to care for themselves significantly better than did those of doctors who lacked empathic connections.

So what should leaders of healthcare systems do in the face of such evidence? One tendency is to announce a commitment to empathy. Marshal a press release, put together a big event, and force every doctor to go to yet another seminar reminding them to actually care about the people that they care for. And it’s likely to help – for a little while.

As American Medical News reports, such flashy efforts do make a difference in the short term. In one study, 370 first-year medical students went to a workshop in which actors wore earplugs and smeared goggles to simulate the reduced hearing and vision of the elderly. The students were then measured on the Jefferson Scale of Empathy at a few intervals following the experience. At the outset, most showed heightened levels of empathy. But over time, they returned to prior levels. The study, conducted by Mohammadreza Hojat and published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, showed a decline in the absence of reinforcement.

To Get Empathy to Stick It Must Be Made a Top Priority

This emphasizes an important point that should not be missed by any leader seeking to create a more empathic healthcare system: empathy can’t be achieved with a one-time, remedial skills development course. It’s a shift in philosophy and behavior that requires daily reinforcement to stick and make a difference. Trying to provide an empathy boost with a one-time investment without follow-through is a waste of money and can become a source of resentment from a staff. Building an organization that is truly wired to care requires commitment by all stakeholders to genuinely put empathy for patients as a top priority and the subject of every other conversation about change and strategy.

One of the best ways to achieve that in healthcare delivery is by bringing patients and their families directly into conversations about care model development. Over the past several years, we’ve worked with a large hospital to pilot new models of care. And the most critical piece of this process has been the participation of those who will be on the other end. They didn’t come up with the original ideas, nor should they have, but they’re there to provide a clear, consistent voice for how these changes will affect them. This gives everyone involved in the process – administrators, physicians, nurses, patients, and families – a gut-level understanding of how their actions and ability to connect with one another will affect their success.

And that’s something you don’t stop feeling. No matter what.