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June 30, 2015

Here's how some hospitals are teaching doctors empathy

Daily Briefing

With an increased focus on patient satisfaction scores, some hospitals are training their doctors and other staff on how to be more empathetic when interacting with patients, Kelsey Dallas writes for Deseret News.

Under Medicare's Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) Program, providers are incented—through penalties and bonuses—to perform better on certain quality measures and on patient experience surveys. In fiscal year 2015, the VBP program will withhold 1.5% of payments for all hospitals and distribute incentive payments based on performance—with patient experience affecting 30% of a provider's performance score.

"A lot has changed in the last 10 years or so. Health care is a much more consumer-oriented field than it was in the past, because people ... have a lot of options," says Nathan Wanner, medical director of the University of Utah Hospital's palliative care service.

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Challenges to teaching empathy

Even with the increasing focus on connecting with patients, some providers—particularly older physicians—are skeptical that empathy can be caught, says Wanner, a patient experience leader for the hospital.

Some doctors argue that there should not be such a focus on interpersonal connection, given the limited amount of time physicians often are able to spend with each patient.

And overworked and burned out doctors can especially struggle to "muster the energy to care as much about what the patient is feeling," Wanner explains. "When you're working 80 hours a week, listening to all of a patient's concerns takes a lot of effort."

Why physicians are more burned out and dissatisfied than ever

Importance of making a connection

Yet despite the challenges, it is still crucial for providers to make sure patients "feel they are listened to, respected, and valued as individuals," Wanner says.

Wanner emphasizes that doctors should develop their own personal style of empathy that they feel comfortable with. For some, that might mean using humor, while others may be more comfortable placing a hand on patients' shoulders or asking about their pets.

Helen Riess, director of Massachusetts General Hospital's empathy and relational science program, says it is crucial for providers to help patients feel comfortable by giving them the opportunity to explain their concerns or asking about their families.

Empathy as culture: How to improve the patient experience

Riess helps run a training program through another organization to help providers build non-verbal communication skills. The program also stresses asking patients open ending questions, allowing patients to discuss their experience prior to interjecting with a potential diagnosis or data, and focusing on being present during interactions.

Putting in dedicated time to build relationships with patients during their visits can help save time later by avoiding "phone calls or the unnecessary appointments that happen when someone feels upset or unheard," Riess says.

And making those connections can be beneficial not only for patients, but for providers, too. "Regardless of how important you think (empathy) is for the sake of the patient, it's really important for you," Wanner says (Dallas, Deseret News, 6/25 6/29).

The takeaway: Amid an increased focus on patient satisfaction, hospitals are increasingly training providers on how to strengthen their empathy skills.

What hospitals overlook about the patient experience

Patient experience is top of mind for health care providers across the country. And every member of the hospital care team—from administrators to service line leaders and everyone in between—is vital in ensuring a patient is comfortable and kept informed from entry to discharge.

The Daily Briefing's Clare Rizer recently sat down with Jessica Suchy, a senior director for Advisory Board Performance Technologies and dedicated advisor for iRound's patient experience tool, to understand how health care's approach to patient experience is being transformed.


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