When most people hear the word ‘empathy,’ the image that comes to mind is something soft — even cute. But in fact, empathy can be bold, it can be strong, and it can play a critical role in improving care, said Adrienne Boissy, MD, during her keynote address at the Patient Experience and Engagement Summit at last week’s HIMSS conference.
Boissy speaks from experience; not only is she Chief Experience officer at the Cleveland Clinic, but she is also a neurologist specializing in treating multiple sclerosis. In her line of work, demonstrating empathy is a must. But why should it stop there? She believes that as patients take on a more active role in their care, it’s becoming more important than ever that every member of the care team — from surgeons to help-desk professionals — are able to understand the challenges that patients and their families face.
And that, according to Boissy, means operationalizing empathy by “building it into processes, workflows, and checklists, around access, around interoperability, and around data sharing. Only then will we have systems that care.”
During her address, she shared the story of a patient whose struggles with access have inspired her to help create a better experience for each individual person. During the summit, we had a chance to speak with Dr. Boissy about how organizations can take steps toward achieving that goal.
Gamble: You talked about operationalizing empathy by building it into processes and workflows. How can organizations go about doing that?
Boissy: There’s a lot that can be done in that regard. One of the problems is that we tend to think of empathy as a unicorn; this magical thing that happens between two people. But in fact, the most empathetic thing you can do for a patient is to give them access to their provider, any time. Technologies like virtual visits can play a role in improving access – if it’s done the right way.
One example is surgical checklists. When a patient is going in for surgery, providers have a list of tasks that need to be completed. But where on the list does it say, ‘Patient and family were updated’? It needs to be part of the workflow so we can orient everyone that this is a human being; it’s not a left knee replacement.
Another example is discharge. We have a whole bunch of workflows around the discharge process, but they’re all clinician-facing. We need workflows that talk about care coordination. It seems like common sense, but it’s not common sense, because it’s not how healthcare operates. To me it’s about blowing up those processes and advocating more aggressively for patients.
Gamble: As you mentioned in your presentation, a key part of that is in getting input from patients. How are you doing that at Cleveland Clinic?
Boissy: There are a few different ways. In the early days of patient experience, you had focus groups where you’d say, ‘this is what we’re thinking about – what are your thoughts?’ And then you’d go and do what you want.
We certainly have patient focus groups and advisory groups. But we believe the future is in partnerships. Right now, we’re working to bring about 400 patients as partners to do clinical integration projects with us and sit on safety committees. They need to be integrated in, not just someone you talk to everyone once in a while. They need to be part of the actual work; part of the actual process.
Gamble: Have there been changes you’ve made based on patient input? Does anything stand out?
Boissy: It’s amazing the input we’ve gotten. We brought in a bunch of architects when we were designing a new building for neurology, but none of them had ever spent time in a wheelchair. As you might expect, we had a several patients on the council who were in wheelchairs, so they said, ‘Come back to us with your plan after you’ve spent a day in a wheelchair. Then we’ll talk about self-powered doors, and how fast the elevator doors close, the height of the counters.’ It’s all things you wouldn’t think about unless you’ve been in their position.
It’s really common sense. Or at least, it should be.