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Q & A

Can empathy help healthcare and business?

Organizational change can occur at the level of technological innovation or at the level of human interaction. Consulting firm Katzenbach Partners studied customer service across industries and developed a model that proposes creating competitive advantage through a holistic approach to customer service. A recent white paper, “The Empathy Engine: Achieving Breakthroughs in Patient Service,” applies this analysis to the healthcare industry. Q3 talked with Jenny Machida, a leader in Katzenbach Partners’ healthcare practice and one of the authors of the paper, about the personal side of patient service.

Q: What did your research at healthcare organizations reveal?

We found that the human interactions encountered in the course of a healthcare experience are really central to shaping how patients make their healthcare decisions and whether they feel satisfied by the experience.

Sometimes patients are less able to judge the excellent quality of medical care that might have been delivered, but they remember that children’s toothpaste was available in the lobby for the siblings of the patient; they remember having meals or parking taken care of or the efforts of desk attendants, patient care representatives, technicians, transporters — the people who really defined the holistic experience of being at the hospital.

For organizations, one of the biggest barriers to taking on a major transformative effort around patient care is how daunting it can seem. When balanced against pressures of cost, quality, and competition that healthcare executives have to face, it can be imposing. Added to that, healthcare leaders and especially practitioners have concerns about, unsurprisingly, cost and regulation.

The good news is that what actually ends up defining patient service comes down to factors that are eminently within healthcare organizations’ control — the behavior of their leaders, managers, and front-line people. Some of the most exciting stories we found were employees who delivered what feels like absolutely best-in-class care, even though the physical facility is 50 years old and doesn’t have the fanciest computer systems. They did it because they were able to connect with patients on a human level.

When healthcare organizations are able to be more responsive to patients’ needs, patients form connections with those organizations. That can help patients follow through on care protocols. They show up for appointments. They walk away feeling positive, which leads to referring other patients and reduces malpractice risk.

And empathy has important impacts on employees. Employee engagement and satisfaction coming from delivering empathetic care begin to create some of the benefits of a more satisfied work force, such as a lower attrition rate, which of course, has a tremendous bottom-line impact for healthcare organizations that are trying to compete in a very tight labor market.

Q: What do these sorts of innovations look like?


Let me give an example from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. They created a "Ticket to Ride" program that focuses on the "handover" that happens when a patient needs to move from their room to get tests done or to be transferred to a different part of the hospital.

Patients are given a sheet of paper with instructions about where the patient is going and why. The patient holds the “ticket,” but the transporters, who are in charge of moving patients, now make sure that whichever technician or therapist the patient was going to see has a full understanding of why the patient is there.

One wouldn’t usually think about transporters as care providers. But when you realize patients are having interactions and developing impressions in between what people might think of as the traditional types of care, transporters play a critical role.

The outcome is patients feel more cared for and the transporters are more engaged. The feedback that the hospital got from these transporters was: "I never thought of myself as a part of this before, but now, I play a really active role." There is also a very important outcome in terms of patient safety, a reduction in error rate. I think when you’re able to hit the patient experience, employee engagement, and improve the system’s safety and effectiveness, that’s what we’re talking about in terms of an empathy engine.

Another example comes from Eastern Long Island Hospital, where their staff in the perioperative unit of the hospital saw a point of frustration. When surgery patients were discharged, they often had to wait at the pharmacy for their prescriptions. And even though that point of distress happened after the patient had been discharged, the perioperative staff realized that it was an opportunity to provide a little bit better service to patients and families. They simply installed a fax machine in the unit so that before a patient was discharged, prescriptions were faxed to the pharmacy and would be waiting when the patient and the family arrived.

That only happened because the perioperative staff had conversations with families and patients and demonstrated the empathy to think beyond their particular episode of care. Eastern Long Island Hospital has created an environment and a culture that values that sort of experimentation, looks at those insights as opportunities to meet patients’ needs in new ways, and has fostered this empathetic capability to adapt and change.

Q: How can organizations measure success at empathy?


Healthcare organizations are usually very adept at satisfaction metrics. So the key for organizations looking to improve their patient service capability is to look at the metrics that matter to them now and find ways to use those metrics in new ways.

At HealthSouth, for example, five hospital CEOs come together to look at their patient satisfaction metrics in order to draw relationships between the actions they’re taking at their various, very diverse hospitals and the way that those efforts are moving the needle on the key metrics.

It is a forum where these hospital executives can learn and share ideas, common challenges, and successes in a candid and open way that helps them get underneath what’s driving this really important success factor, which is whether their patients are receiving the care and the experience that they want, and use that as fodder for broader organizational innovation and change and a higher level of understanding, both for the participants and then for the organization as a whole.

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