Instilling a Culture of Empathy in Healthcare

By Rami Haffar

Modern healthcare has a drive towards collecting and crunching data. However, unquantifiable behaviors like empathy can fall between the gaps. As processes improve and technology continues to make a difference, it is important to assess the role of empathy in diagnosis, treatment, and aftercare, and how empathy can be more influential than the data to a patient.

As Neuroscientist Professor Tali Sharot argues in her book ‘The Influential Mind’, “Numbers and statistics are necessary and wonderful for uncovering the truth, but they’re not enough to change beliefs, and they are practically useless for motivating action.”

To have a real impact, to really change the way a patient thinks and acts, one must build a personal connection that goes beyond data-centric understanding. Data can support and back up the motives behind implementing change, but the motivation to change lies beyond statistical analysis.

So, why is empathy so important in the medical field, and how can that change be enacted effectively?

What do we mean by empathy?

Defined as “emotional resonance”, empathy is a key part of daily practice. Whereas sympathy expresses solidarity with a patient, empathy asks the caregiver to intellectually and emotionally place themselves in the patient’s position. This can allow for a more accurate diagnosis and a better standard of end-to-end care from practitioners. However, as this is an internal process, it is important to regulate it.

While empathy is considered innate, it is very much a practiced skill that requires careful thought and consideration. This necessitates formal training as a key part of the practitioner process. Individuals can find themselves “filling in the gaps” when it comes to patient care, or even find it difficult to marry this with the professional detachment that is essential for such a demanding job.

In many cases, the emotional context of the patient experience is key to providing appropriate and helpful care. This allows for effective diagnoses and ensures that the patient experiences a comfortable treatment journey that provides a long-term benefit. This becomes especially important when we consider things from the patient’s perspective.

Patient Experience

The patient experience makes a significant difference. Empathy does not extend to diagnosis but is vital in the process of treating patients. Understanding a patient’s history allows practitioners to take an appropriate approach to their treatment. This can affect how a diagnosis is handled, allaying a patient’s fears, or pursuing a course of aftercare.

Additionally, keeping in mind the trauma of patients who have been separated from their families during Covid-19, having proper practice can make patient care less traumatic and more effective. Embedding healthy and formalized ways to empathize with patients allows practitioners to carry out their jobs with accuracy, whilst working to reduce the risk of burnout.

Empathy becomes especially important when dealing with mental and/or emotional issues or distress. It plays a key role in helping a patient who is experiencing grief, in the aftermath of a serious diagnosis, or facing other significant challenges. However, the practitioner should have the practical skills to translate empathetic understanding into action. This can be through communication, practical follow-through, or mapping these insights into patient records for use at a later date.

Meaningful Change

Of course, none of this is useful without applying these insights to the real world. This can involve:

1. Studying Processes

Analysing and changing established processes and practices. This can involve a review of established procedures and the context of client journeys. This can allow for greater communication and oversight, capturing metrics that enable your teams to chart success.

2. Analysing Structure

Empathy cannot be embedded unless the system supports it. This involves reviewing established operational models and understanding where positive change would bring the greatest benefit. This encourages and captures practical learning about empathy, letting you speed up daily tasks with full correctness.

3. Training Individuals

No matter the industry, staff members need to be resilient to change. Taking the time to understand your workplace culture helps improve daily practice. Constructing a communication plan lets you roll out change effectively and allows key members of staff to develop the skills needed to help support your initiative.

4. Co-creating the patient journeys

A crucial element in understanding a patient is sharing the journey with them. No amount of research can replace experience when it comes to developing a sense of empathy. To be able to feel as deeply as the patient who has been through the situation puts the care-giver or healthcare provider in that person’s position and, armed with the knowledge of how to care for them, allows an appropriate patient journey to be created together. Being only able to sympathise, only enables you to understand that they need care but does not address the root of the problem or allow you to share the pain with them.

However, by gaining many perspectives from the various people you plan on designing the framework for, there are plenty of opportunities to gain a full understanding of their emotions, their thought processes, and how to cater to their situation across the entire spectrum. It would be naïve to suggest a ‘one size fits all’ response. There are levels to every situation and nuances in the response to it. That being said, the plan needs to be agile enough to cater to different personality types, different stages, taking into consideration worsening or improving circumstances without imposing a single method in every instance.

The main method used to gain a full understanding of the patient is by interviewing them, asking questions that may appear overly-sensitive in other environments, and observing them. Other than the brief time you normally spend with patients, you can take part in their recovery journey by being more present through actions like card sorting and house visits, attending meetings, counseling sessions, rehab sessions, or any other relevant action they complete as part of their normal routine.

This allows you to compile and organize information from a wider range of sources to create a fully-formed picture of the person which will help to design a comprehensive Patient Journey Map by being able to place yourself directly in the user’s position.

An area growing in importance is the use of technology in communicating with patients. In some cases, patients find it easier to be open and honest with a machine rather than a person, and where there is difficulty in expressing oneself, the use of AI and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) can uncover the underlying emotions.

A Patient Journey Map allows you to make sense of what a user goes through as well as when and how. This will lead to why someone is struggling and allows you to gain more empathy because you envision yourself in the user’s mind as they deal with their daily challenges.

5. Telling Stories – Written or videoed patient stories

Humans are wired for metaphor. We use our brains to understand, analyze, measure, and predict. But only when that understanding marries our humanity, our emotion and the intrinsic human consciousness do we act for good. Storytelling is at the heart of all human endeavors and a key driver of social change. 

The use of stories has become an effective learning tool to encourage discussion in team meetings and board meetings, particularly regarding patient safety issues. For example, the US Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s ‘Boards on board’ program suggests that having written or videoed stories, or even asking patients to attend a board meeting to describe their experience, adds a human face to issues that may just exist on paper until a relatable real-life situation is outlined.

Putting the viewer into the story raises awareness far more effectively than a text-only campaign and encourages healthcare managers to promote change. There is also a growing body of academic literature and workplace studies suggesting that storytelling is an effective strategy for learning and improvement, which means the visual style could well become the norm in years to come.