Talking about "patient experience" is one thing -- but making a deep and lasting emotional connection to those our communication and messaging are meant to help is another. Let's see how empathy is but the first step in making a meaningful difference in the lives of the patients we serve.
Understanding the patient experience
As marketers, we like to talk about the patient experience in buzzwords: “mobile-first”, “the patient journey”, and “user-centric design”. I know this because I’m a healthcare marketing strategist, and these are the types of phrases that come tumbling out of my mouth on a daily basis. But how often do we really stop to think about the patient experience – the REAL patient experience?
For the past two years, I’ve had a chance to do just that at the Cleveland Clinic’s Patient Empathy and Innovation Summit. And what I learned at this conference is that caregivers – people who have dedicated their lives to providing care for others – don’t use trendy buzzwords to describe what they do. Instead, they talk about suffering – the great equalizer of humanity. They talk about vulnerability and the humility you feel when you become a patient for the first time. They talk about powerlessness – what its like to be at the mercy of the healthcare system.
At Klick, we believe that digital technology will revolutionize the way healthcare is delivered in North America, and many at the Cleveland Clinic’s conference shared this perspective. But there was another perspective shared too – a perspective that is deeply rooted in the reality of today’s healthcare experience.
Doctors today spend more time looking at a screen than they spend looking in their patient’s eyes. All the things we’ve done to create a more efficient and effective healthcare system are the things that are stripping that system of empathy. Things like electronic medical records wedge a piece of machinery in between the patient and their doctor, making it more and more difficult for them to connect. Toby Cosgrove, President and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, said at this year’s Patient Empathy Conference: “physicians have been reduced to typists and the patient is the reporter – and both parties hate it”.
So, I went to a conference, I heard some new perspectives, I shed some tears, and I learned some things, but what do I think this means for myself as a digital healthcare strategist, and for Klick as a digital healthcare agency?
Henry David Thoreau once said, “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”. What he was talking about was the practice of empathy – walking in another person’s shoes, seeing the world from their perspective, and imagining what their life could be like. I think that by harnessing the power of empathy we can create experiences for patients that truly honor their suffering, sense of powerlessness, and vulnerability.
What if we understood where patients were coming from?
Our previous life experiences make us who we are. They also greatly affect our health outcomes later in life. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences make us more likely to develop chronic disease like COPD or diabetes later in life (). At last year’s conference, Alexandra Drane said “we should expand the definition of health to include life, because when life goes wrong, health goes wrong”.
At Klick we’ve had the opportunity to create experiences that meet people where they are, recognizing the immense emotional difficulties they are facing and have faced in the past, and attempting to provide them with the education, tools, and support needed for better health outcomes. We need to dig deeper into this important work, continuing to attempt to walk a mile in our patient and caregiver’s shoes and see the world through their eyes in order to deliver experiences that meet their truest needs.
What if we understood where patients were going?
Our previous life experiences makes us who we are, but so too do our goals and aspirations. At last year’s conference we heard from a gentleman who had bone cancer and needed to have his leg amputated above the knee. This man was a triathlete and refused to let his diagnosis stop him from competing. So, he did as much research as he could and found a procedure called Rotationplasty, where a person’s foot would be removed, rotated, and reattached to the limb, meaning his ankle joint would become his knee joint. The procedure was not originally recommended to him because of the cosmetic implications, but it would allow him much more mobility and stability in a prosthetic limb, allowing him to continue to compete in triathlon.
This story highlights to me the importance of accessible, transparent, accurate, real-time healthcare information. This information is what is necessary for people to make informed decisions about their own care or the care of a loved one, based on their own unique needs, goals, and desires.
At this year’s conference, Patti Substelny, an economist who is living with Multiple Sclerosis, showed us two incredibly complicated economic equations and asked us to make an investment decision based on the information she had provided. After observing many confused faces in her audience she told us “this is how I feel when a doctor asks me which medication I want”.
At Klick, I’ve had the opportunity to help provide patients with the kind of information that will help them better understand the inherent risks and benefits of the treatments they take in the hopes of making them informed and engaged decision makers. But there is so much more Klick can do to arm the patient with the information that provides the basis for their own self-discovery, empowered choice, and life planning.
What if we saw people, not patients?
And what if we start asking ourselves harder questions, like what really is patient engagement? At last year’s conference, Adrienne Boisey, the Chief Experience Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, asked us “If a single working mother of 2 who has MS doesn’t want to download our app or sign up for emails because she doesn’t want a reminder that she is living with a chronic disease, does that mean she is a disengaged patient?” This is the next frontier for Klick – how do we measure patient empathy? We have started to make some headway in understanding the types of digital interaction patients can engage in, and what those digital interactions could signal with regards to their intent, but how might we deepen that understanding? How might we take into account a person’s, past, present and future to truly understand what their clicks mean?
Working in the Service of Empathy
Attending the conference made me very reflective on my family as both my mother and father are healthcare practitioners. My mother was a nurse for many years before she retired, and throughout her career I continuously asked her why she never moved into upper management by becoming an educator or a manager. She told me that she became a nurse because she wanted to help people – pure and simple, and that she couldn’t help people from behind a desk or in a classroom.
I know that we (healthcare marketers) are so very far from those who have the courage and selflessness to dedicate their lives to caring for others, but I don’t think it excludes us from doing our jobs in the service of love, kindness, compassion, and empathy, because when we do, we have a shot at making a real difference in the patient experience. Are you interested in activating the empathy? Want to bring that emotional resonance to your brands? Let’s make it happen!