Technology

Better Health Care: Try a Little Empathy


Personal touches, such as more doctor visits and friendlier transport, can improve patient care and hospitals' bottom lines

In typical conversations about the U.S. health-care system, it is rare to hear "cost control" and "patient satisfaction" in the same sentence. Conventional wisdom suggests that health-care organizations often achieve cost savings at the expense of patient experience, and that "high touch" service occurs primarily in fancy facilities or in the doctors' offices that do not accept insurance. Let's face it: Many of the well-known examples of health-care cost cuts—like longer wait times, shorter interactions with clinicians, and increasingly automated customer service—leave patients feeling as if their personal interests are in direct opposition to the cost-conscious interests of the health-care organizations that serve them.

Fortunately for all us, there are health-care organizations defying the conventional wisdom. They've found ways to leverage the basic and irreplaceable power of the personal touch to improve both patient satisfaction and the bottom line. These organizations are innovating at the intersection of patient needs and organizational efficiency.

A lot of this work is counterintuitive and requires a willingness to experiment. Ask most doctors or hospital administrators if they believe increasing the frequency of contacts between patients and clinicians can save time and money, and they'll wonder what medication you're on.

More Visits, Fewer Interruptions

But at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, the staff found that frequent interruptions, usually in the form of pages to doctors' beepers, made rounds longer and made it more difficult to focus on patient care—for doctors and nurses alike. The hospital realized staff could be significantly more efficient if they increased the number of patient visits in order to reduce unexpected disruptions. Now a doctor or nurse checks in on every patient's needs every hour, and instead of a traditional numerical page, doctors now receive simple text messages.

As a result, patients felt better cared for and the doctors and nurses also saw real benefits. The program created financial value for the hospital as well. Average length of stay decreased, as did the incidence of falls and pressure ulcers, all of which saved costs while actually enhancing the patient's service experience.

How far should health-care providers go to improve customer service and efficiency? What about giving patients a bath when they are admitted to a hospital? In all hospitals, infections—especially from antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA—present significant health risks for patients and drive up costs.

Cleaner Patients, Lower Costs

HealthSouth's Tustin Rehabilitation Hospital in California changed its admission procedure to require that each patient be given a bath and treated with an anti-infective product upon admission. The original motivation was patient safety and infection prevention. But the hospital recognized that the procedure could feel intrusive or dehumanizing if executed poorly. Coaching for staff proved critical to success. Leaders presented the process to employees as an opportunity to connect with each patient and provide a caring, empathetic service.

The program has helped increase patient satisfaction, in great part due to the staff's thoughtful approach. The program's clinical results have been impressive. Rates of infection have decreased dramatically and consistently, which has led to a significant reduction in the costs associated with patient treatment and isolation.

It's not just about doctors and nurses. Changing the attitudes and behaviors of frontline health-care workers plays a key role for patient care and efficiency at every stage of the health-care experience—including patients' transportation by wheelchair or gurney within a hospital, a process in which individual patient needs sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Instead of looking at the transport of patients as a series of impersonal handoffs, the Ticket to Ride program at the Presbyterian Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) makes a critical shift to highly personal "hand-overs" that position nonclinical transporter employees as important participants in patient safety and continuity of care.

Empathy Leads to Solutions

As they are transferred around the hospital, UPMC Presbyterian patients carry a piece of paper that contains information about their itinerary and any special instructions for care. When handing over these instructions, the transporters make a point of engaging with the technician or clinician who is receiving the patient to ensure all instructions are conveyed in a personal way.

This simple innovation has supported patient safety and reduced costly errors and inefficiency. It also has increased patients' confidence about their care and empowered and energized the transporters, who previously had not recognized or taken pride in their role as caregivers. As the program rolls out rapidly across UPMC's 13 acute-care hospitals, it serves as a powerful illustration of innovation that simultaneously creates value for the organization, for patients, and for employees.

These stories of health-care innovation share a common theme: leaders who look to their patients' and their employees' interests as a springboard for solutions. Their people harness the power of empathy to deliver superior results across multiple dimensions. At a time when most conversations about U.S. health care focus on challenges and frustrations, these leaders demonstrate that important health-care results often start with basic person-to-person empathy.

Traci Entel and Jenny Machida are principals at Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting firm.

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