It’s time for hospitals to start investing in compassion

November 1, 2019

I have seen first-hand how even the most knowledgeable doctors can struggle with communication, especially during difficult conversations

Every year, hospitals must determine how they want to prioritize their spending. Most have to consider goals such as increasing patient loyalty, attracting new patients, strengthening brand perception, managing risk, decreasing turnover and increasing their bottom line. To accomplish this, hospitals often end up prioritizing marketing initiatives over patient engagement, and it’s one of the largest, yet most common mistakes I’ve seen them make.

As a practicing neonatologist for more than 25 years, I have dedicated my career to learning and teaching communication techniques that help medical professionals form trusting relationships with patients and families. Throughout this time, I have seen first-hand how even the most knowledgeable doctors can struggle with communication, especially during difficult conversations, such as delivering bad news. I have also seen how effective communication can improve the doctor-patient relationship, which ultimately results in an enhanced patient experience.

While the majority of doctors and other healthcare professionals are very compassionate people, they may not demonstrate it in ways that patients most need. As doctors, we’ve been told for decades to put our emotions aside – that avoiding feelings will make it easier to navigate tough interactions. This mindset has been a massive disservice to the medical community, and the patient experience as a whole.

Every single interaction from a medical professional carries the weight to change a patient’s entire life – it’s up to the hospital and staff to ensure these interactions are handled with care and strategy. Training that teaches clinicians to communicate compassionately and empathetically is an investment that hospitals cannot afford to omit.

Marketing vs. Communication Training: What Influences Loyalty?

Hospitals tend to put a hefty budget behind complex marketing campaigns and outward brand perception. While there is certainly value in traditional marketing strategy, it is not the ultimate driving force behind long-term patient relationships.

Press Ganey, one of the largest administrators of patient satisfaction surveys, published a report in late 2018 indicating patients are more likely to select a practice because of a positive experience than if the practice has an extensive consumer marketing campaign. In that same report, 70% of respondents said their most recent healthcare visits influenced their loyalty to an organization.

In general, hospitals with better loyalty and patient-reported experience perform better financially. Deloitte research found between 2008 and 2014, hospitals with “excellent” overall patient experience ratings in the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) had a net margin of 4.7%, on average, compared with 1.8% for hospitals with “low” ratings.

Moreover, investing in communication training can decrease medical malpractice risk. For instance, a 2015 analysis of the HCAHPS found that “the percent of patients who reported that their nurses ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Never’ communicated well is correlated with higher claims costs than expected.”

A paid marketing strategy should be used to supplement and tout the stellar patient experience a hospital has worked to build, but if patient-facing communication is not up to par, this marketing strategy will subsequently fall flat.

How Can You Teach Compassion?

It is not always what we say, but how we say it. Our verbal and non-verbal communication must be consistent with the message, and words are only a small part of the message. When I train a hospital’s staff The Orsini Way, I emphasize that compassion has to be at the crux of every decision a medical professional makes, from the words they choose to their body language. For instance, something as simple as a doctor choosing to sit down when they enter a room vs. remaining standing can have a lasting impact on the patient throughout the duration of the visit and beyond.

When you strip medical communication down to its foundation, it is all about doctors’ ability to build rapport and trust. When asked a difficult question or tasked with delivering tragic news, many doctors default to the textbook, speaking in jargon rather than relating on a human level. Communication must not be a be perceived as shallow or scripted. Effective communication training provides the students the ability to think on their feet and show genuine compassion. To get doctors more comfortable with these interactions, I often use professional actors to put trainees into realistic situations that show how they respond to unscripted reactions from the actors. After putting them through this simulation, I review their recorded performance and discuss how they can approach each moment more effectively.

Not only is it essential to utilize compassionate communication within difficult dialogues, but it’s just as essential throughout every patient interaction. Doctors who are able to build a relationship quickly with their patients increase the likelihood of the patient adhering to their medical plan and decrease the likelihood of the patient assigning fault to the doctor in the face of an adverse event.

While taking a tactical approach to teaching compassion may seem counterintuitive, each and every interaction is a contributing factor to a hospital’s financial wellness and should be treated with as much strategy as any other form of training.

Establishing a Culture Shift

Communication is not only the very cornerstone to an effective patient experience, but it is also what keeps a hospital running smoothly and efficiently with low turnover. When trained on a hospital-wide level, the goal of compassion training is to create an overall culture change.

Patients are not the only ones benefiting from improved interactions, as more than 40 percent of doctors deal with burnout on a daily basis. The biggest hurdle I have encountered within compassionate communication training is clinicians stating they don’t have the time to build these ongoing relationships, or to go through a step-by-step process when delivering news. The reality is that most of this training is a marriage of many small-scale techniques that can be easily implemented into a hospital’s everyday practice while still maintaining efficiency. Many of the techniques actually save time. When healthcare systems emphasize the importance of forming trusting relationships, it brings the human connection back to medicine and helps clinicians remember why they entered the field in the first place.

Whether medical professionals are delivering bad news or simply working to build ongoing relationships, knowing how to listen and speak with patients empathetically and compassionately is critical. Having a staff trained to communicate compassionately has shown to be a massive financial benefit for hospitals, which is why hospital executives should continue prioritizing and investing in communication training.

Anthony Orsini, DO, is a full-time practicing neonatologist and the founder of The Orsini Way, a groundbreaking multi-platform program that shows healthcare professionals a completely new way to communicate dramatically enhance patient satisfaction and improve outcomes. He is also the chief of patient experience for Pediatrix Medical Group in Florida.

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