Guest Columns

Hardwiring compassion and empathy

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Anthony Cirillo
Anthony Cirillo
Despite all the technology, fancy buildings, dining and activity experiences, healthcare boils down to one thing: human relationships. Most skilled healthcare workers go into the profession with the best of intentions. Yet, in many organizations the spark is gone even among some of our best. Still, when life and death is at stake, it is imperative that staff is engaged, focused and passionate about providing the very best healthcare.

Price is the number one sales driver in all industries except healthcare, where personal experience ranks first, according to PwC research. In fact, six out of 10 provider experiences are defined by staff attitude. Consumers are about twice as likely as those in the airline, hotel and banking industries to say that staff friendliness and attitude contributed to a good or bad experience.

According to a survey released by J.D. Power and Associates, the biggest key to patient satisfaction isn't a fancy lobby or high-tech equipment; it's the staff. The facility represents only 19% of patients' satisfaction.

You can even make an argument that many safety and quality issues can be boiled down to communication among people. You may LEAN and Six Sigma an improvement and figure out ways to communicate more effectively with patients and residents. The process may be improved, but if the people have not changed, the improvement will not be sustained.

No matter what the process, it is still delivered by people.

Fred Lee, author of If Disney Ran Your Hospital, suggests that you can hardwire competence and customer service. But if it is the same people with a bad attitude delivering care, you have achieved nothing.

Fred Lee suggests that perhaps compassion and empathy can be hardwired. Maybe he is on to something.

A large, empirical study by a team of Thomas Jefferson University and Italian researchers showed that doctors who are more empathic have better outcomes and fewer complications. They evaluated relationships between physician empathy and clinical outcomes among 20,961 diabetic patients and 242 physicians in Italy. The ultimate conclusion was that empathy should be taught in medical schools. But it should not be reserved for students. Our practicing providers need empathy. It cannot be taught. But it can be brought out.

Compassion and empathy start with the individual.

A person can't be compassionate and empathic to others unless that person is compassionate to himself or herself.

In her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explores how people can embrace their vulnerabilities and imperfections so that they engage in their lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness. She calls these wholehearted people. They have the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, she says, you can't practice compassion with other people if you can't treat yourself kindly.

“Caring too much can hurt,” states Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface.”

Healthcare has to heal itself before it can heal others. The company CEO2 calls it “Mastering Self.” Uncovering, re-igniting individual passion and purpose leads to compassion and self-care and then to compassion and empathy for patients.

From that, an entire organization that is more connected on a deeper level have relationships that are deeper. Teams thrive. Trust grows.

Organizations can change employees' behaviors in the short run. Carrots and stick, performance reviews and benefits. People will follow for a while whether or not it is aligned with their beliefs. An organization cannot change a person's beliefs but a person can if they start questioning those beliefs.

That is what happens when people experience the process of uncovering their passion and purpose.

As The Beryl Institute report: “Structuring the Patient Experience” notes, “Some of the initial enthusiasm for promoting patient experience work has faded.”

It fades because it is prescriptive. Facilitate unleashing the best in your people. Unleash the compassion and empathy by helping them to uncover their true passion and purpose.

In the process, you will create a new and compelling vision for your organization.

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Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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