Compassionate Communication in a digital world – Part 1

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at one of the largest conferences on patient satisfaction in the world. The attendees were energetic, the speakers inspiring and there was an enthusiasm in the air that could be felt.

We are in an exciting time in medicine when the patient experience is clearly the hottest topic. Back in 1995 when I began studying the impact of compassionate communicate on patient experience, there wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to how patients perceived their interaction with medical professionals.

Now, the voice of the patient has much more impact. There are a variety of reasons driving this change, not the least of which is patient sentiment being linked to hospital revenue. The emergence of value-based care has providers and patients both focused on improving the experience. Patient sentiment is tied to hospital revenue, patient loyalty and even medical outcomes. It has become so important that most hospitals now have full time staff dedicated to improving the patient experience.

My fellow attendees at this particular conference were mostly professionals who are dedicated to helping patients have the best experience possible. How best to do that, is still elusive to most. Therein lies the problem.

One of the most interesting and enlightening parts of this conference was the trade show exhibit. Companies were in full force selling various products designed to ‘enhance the overall patient experience’. Products are on the rise as healthcare providers struggle to adapt to the new patient-centered reality.

Patient perception is rising in importance:

  • EHR or Electronic Health Records, are a fixture in every medical practice.
  • The next generation of doctors emerging from medical school are digital-native.
  • TeleHealth is emerging as a mainstream practice.
  • There is no magic solution to improving patient experience.

As a lifelong teacher, and student, of compassionate communication in health care, I was surprised to see so many of vendors promising “to train hospital staff how to communicate effectively to meet the emotional needs of their patients”. Yet, almost all of the vendors I spoke to claimed they did this by distributing educational materials or by providing hospital staff with software learning modules. The irony struck me into a chuckle. 

Communicating with patients when they are most vulnerable is all about building a trusting relationship. When patients trust their healthcare provider they are more likely to follow their treatment plan resulting in better outcomes. In addition, today’s patients demand not only good health care, but to be treated with respect. That mutual respect is requirement for them to trust providers and give a favorable satisfaction scores. Trust is a building block to the larger relationship.

The conference vendors were right about one thing: effective communication techniques can be taught. These techniques, however cannot be learned by sitting in front of a computer or iPad. Emotions are only felt by humans and communication skills, especially those required to bring compassion to someone in need, must be done with real humans.

The ideal environment for teaching compassionate communication in healthcare is by experiential learning or interactive workshops taught by those who have mastered the art. These learning formats provide advantages not possible with a computer learning. The nuances of non-verbal language, verbal tone, cadence or inflection are learned only through instant feedback by trained instructors. To be clear, software learning modules and webinars can be an effective learning format for communication but only as an adjunct to interactive human to human training. To truly feel compassion one must imagine it, live it and feel the human interaction. So, let’s not pretend we can teach someone to feel compassion using an iPad.

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