The Call to be Urgently Empathetic: The Transformation to Human-Centered Care

By The SHSMD Team posted 12 days ago

By: Holly Sullivan

Everyone eventually becomes a patient. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured a complex 12-hour surgery. While recovering in the ICU at one of the best academic medical centers in the country, the nurse encouraged me to use the restroom, which was out in the open so patients could be monitored carefully. A few minutes later, I found myself surrounded by six male doctors and residents who were rounding. They came into the room without regard to my privacy and started discussing my case. I was at my most vulnerable and there was no regard to my basic human dignities. This kind of dehumanizing is all too common in our field and we must replace it with a human-centered approach focused on thinking more about “the who” we are serving and “how” they expect to be cared for and interacted with as humans.

We are at the tipping point. The transformation to a human-centered approach is vital to our existence going forward. It will help us evolve from simply caring for sick people to health organizations that match humans’ needs and preferences across their entire life journey.

New competitors, spurred on by large private equity investments, are fast forming offerings around these new market dynamics. If we fail to get this right, those organizations will. And quite simply, building empathetic, human-centered care is the right thing to do.

If we can develop an empathetic understanding of the people we serve, we will then have the proper lens through which we can provide human-centered care. “Urgent empathy” is a critical element of any human-centered approach.

Four Vital Questions

As we look to develop urgent empathy around our care delivery, there are important questions that need to be asked that will help guide us toward a more human-centered, personalized approach.

1. Is our care highly usable across the population? Highly usable means that care is readily available and accessible to those across our communities. Not only do we need to provide physical locations and access points where our consumers live, work and play, but we also need to be available to them to interact with us as they need it, when they need it — physically or virtually.

2. Is our care intuitive? Intuitive means that our services make sense to people and are based on what people believe to be true and real. Consumers should understand where — primary care, ED, urgent, specialist — and when they should seek care, and be able to easily understand and follow their care plans. However, research shows that fewer than half of patients understand their doctors’ directions or the next step in their care journey. Too often, we share critical information at a time when the patient is at their most anxious and vulnerable, struggling with information overload and exhausted. Our processes and terminology, too, create barriers between us and patients.

3. Does our care promote human dignity? While under our care, patients experience one of the most vulnerable and stressful times of their lives. We need to make our patients feel better emotionally, not just physically. Our care needs to uphold and actively promote human dignity. Dignity includes not only respect for the individual but also their right to make choices. We must inform and empower individuals to make decisions about their treatment, or at least have an advocate that can speak on their behalf.

4. Does our care model reduce anxiety and stress or cause it? People are already overly anxious when they seek our services and too often, their experience exacerbates it. Finding the right location, getting the right care , completing treatment and paying for services almost seem designed to induce stress. We need to understand the patient’s journey and deliberately design it to reduce anxiety and stress. An empathetic care model in which providers and patients form a relationship, caregivers take the time to understand consumer concerns, and the care processes and communications are built to support that connection will not only provide a much better experience for people that interact with us but will promote healing.

A Call to Action

As we look toward the future, we need take a step back to better view the problem and reorient our focus, our “North Star” , toward human-centered care and use empathy as a guide to getting it right. This approach will help position us for the future and improve the physical and emotional health of people in our communities. . We must act urgently to coalesce around the goals of human-centered care and develop a solid plan for transformation.

If we do not take this seriously, the implications may not be felt immediately but will gradually take their toll on us as we slowly lose to others who have created disruptive models that displace us from entire segments of our business.

However, if we do take action and embrace urgent empathy as a guide to human-centered care, it can help us bridge to a better future. It will help us address all the elements of the Triple Aim, leading to happier, healthier people in our communities while simultaneously creating a sustainable advantage for our organization in the future.

Holly Sullivan is the senior director of strategic marketing at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the 2020 board president of the Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development.

SHSMD members can read the full article in Spectrum, SHSMD’s magazine on health care strategy for hospital marketers, communications professionals and planners.