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Sow the seeds of empathy to improve patient experience

Posted Sep 03 2013 4:02pm

by Doug Della Pietra

Last week I posted the following to Twitter and LinkedIn:

The Wisdom of Giving put "givers" in charge of patient experience initiatives to influence the patient experience.

In his SlideShare, Bruce Kasanoff suggests many customer--and, I suppose patient--experience initiatives fail because they are designed and led by takers, who he describes as "driven more by ego than empathy" and who put their own needs above the needs of others. In addition, takers focus more energy on selling than serving and don't understand customer needs because they don't really listen.

In contrast, givers

  • Understand the best thing for them is what's best for their customers.
  • Are inclined to see potential in others.
  • Influence others, but in a modest way.
  • Listen carefully to understand what others need.
  • Genuinely care.

With “the vision and ability to grow revenues because they are focused on the needs of others,” Kasanoff theorizes that customer experience efforts led by givers will outperform those of takers. Therefore, he encourages organizations to hire, promote and empower givers to lead their customer experience initiatives .

One question I have not seen Kasanoff address is what organizations should do with the takers that remain and a third group he calls "matchers"--those who protect themselves by seeking reciprocity and, despite their desire to become givers, have not crossed over because they feel too vulnerable.

To answer the question myself, it seems empathy may be the link; it's the distinguishing characteristic abundant in givers and yet diminished or suppressed in takers and matchers. Takers lack empathy because they focus primarily or even exclusively on their own needs before those of others and matchers have a diminished capacity for empathy because they feel too vulnerable.

Sam Ford, in his recent Harvard Business Review article , believes the present-day problem with customer-empathy is the result of "professional training (that) has distanced us from fundamental principles of human communication." He adds, "We now tend to focus on empirical data from survey results and analytics or customer insights from feedback forms and focus groups constrained by what the company knows to ask."

The decline in empathy and the inability to see through the eyes of others has culminated in treating customers (patients) as "a number, or a profile, or a concept instead of an actual human being."

What do organizations do with the takers and matchers who remain after promoting givers? Leading edge research and years (decades even) of evidence show the seeds of empathy can be cultivated. Organizations can develop the empathic capacity of takers and matchers.

Specifically, as Ford's thinking suggests, help improve communication, increase the frequency and quality of the human connections between caregivers and patients and foster the ability of caregivers "to see through the eyes of others."

Programs like Massachusetts General's Empathy and Relational Science Program , University of Rochester Medical Center's Mindful Practice Curriculum and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Patient and Family Centered Care Methodology and Practice are only a few of the excellent resources available to help improve caregiver empathy, presence and the ability to "see through the eyes of others."

We need to "rediscover our humanity" because "we are human beings taking care of human beings" (see Jason Wolf's December 2012 Hospital Impact blog post ). Promoting givers to patient experience leadership positions is only step one. The other, more difficult but essential step is improving every caregiver's capacity for empathy.

Doug Della Pietra is the director of Customer Services and Volunteers for Rochester General Hospital in New York, where he directs an intentionally-designed patient- and family-centered volunteer program , oversees the front-line valet and guest services teams, and leads the service excellence element of the Patient Experience Initiative while co-chairing the hospital's Patient Experience Team. Follow Doug @DougDellaPietra on Twitter.

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