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3 Ways to Improve Patient Experience With Empathy

Posted By Emily D. Tisdale, Monday, August 8, 2016
Updated: Friday, August 5, 2016

One of my last jobs in healthcare before starting my consulting firm was in long-term care and one memory still strikes a chord with me today.

A woman arrived to admit her husband to our dementia unit and I remember the well of emotion in the woman’s countenance. She was stressed, even distressed, as she wrestled with the feeling that she was giving up on her husband. She could no longer care for his well-being and was entrusting him now to our professional care.

The stress manifested in our new resident, too, and he became agitated and confused. Within 24 hours of admission, he became combative, even abusive, and we took measures to protect him and our staff from physical harm. A call to our medical director came with instructions to administer medication to help calm our new resident. The medication worked, but we didn’t anticipate how much it would change his demeanor. Pretty quickly, he went from angry and physical to totally passive. Neither was true to his innate personality, and the change was (understandably) deeply upsetting to his wife.

When difficult situations arise from resident care, we had seen the full spectrum of reactions from residents’ loved ones. However, our residents’ wife was different. In the tense dialogue that ensued, her words pricked at the heart of our effort to provide care.

“He may not know who I am anymore,” she said, “but I will never forget who he is.”

And there it was. In the quest to fulfill our promise for outstanding care, we’d failed to see our new resident for the person he was in the eyes of the woman who loved him—before dementia, before entering our community, a father, husband, partner, friend.

Intuitively, we moved from providing medical treatment to caring with empathy.

This shift is crucial at every at level of the patient experience. But how do you achieve it? Here are three strategies any healthcare organization can adopt to make a measurable difference in the quality of the patient experience.

Affirm Emotions

Patients undergoing medical treatment are facing emotional overload—and so are their loved ones. Health crises exaggerate emotions, and sometimes people lash out at medical providers as they process it all.

A medical team will be better equipped to provide a good patient experience if they acknowledge the emotions of the patient and family and react with empathy. They can also help by examining the micro-level concerns of patients, recognizing them as barriers to trust, and resolving them before satisfaction has a chance to degrade.

We must first change the lens through which we view patients before we can influence their attitudes toward their time in our care.

Hear the Story

With so many demands on our time, patient interactions with healthcare providers are usually confined to diagnosing and treating symptoms and disease. Never forget that a day at work for you is a life event for your patients.

Take time to hear each patient’s story. Contemplate the tone you hear in his or her voice and understand that words of anger or disrespect reveal a lot about where a patient is coming from. When we uncover a patient’s story, we unlock the personhood of the individual we are treating.

Be Creative

Open up your practice up to the kinds of interactions that will help people feel less like patients and more like people while they’re in your care.

For example, tools like pet therapy can be a powerful asset for the patient experience; others include music therapy, memorable celebrations, and special visitors. Apply creativity in providing interactions for your patients in order to generate a sense of normalcy, security and fun.

Health crises are isolating, frightening times for patients and their loved ones. By shifting our style of care to a foundation of empathy, we can improve the quality of the patient experience under our roof and make a more measurable impact on our bottom line.

Emily D. Tisdale is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Recourse Resource Consulting. Recourse Resource works with organizations that are passionate about changing the healthcare experience. Their work focuses on breaking down silos and creating systems between patient experience, employee engagement, and healthcare marketing.

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