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Why health systems must embrace empathy as an imperative


If hospitals and healthcare organizations want to show how much they value their patients, they must listen to them, says Adrienne Boissy of Qualtrics.

Adrienne Boissy wants healthcare organizations to treat empathy as something more than an ideal or a luxury.

Adrienne Boissy, chief medical officer of Qualtrics

Adrienne Boissy, chief medical officer of Qualtrics

Boissy, the chief medical officer of Qualtrics, said empathy needs to be embedded in healthcare organizations so they can truly serve their patients. As she puts it, healthcare organizations demonstrate empathy by making sure people have access to care and hearing their concerns and problems, from their health to paying bills.

“I would love to drive home that access to care is an empathy imperative,” Boissy told Chief Healthcare Executive in a recent interview.

“I don’t believe we will ever achieve the aspirations of respecting people we serve if we can’t figure out how to make sure people have access to care,” she said.

Many patients can’t obtain healthcare due to the cost. While some have put off treatment due to fears of the COVID-19 pandemic, patients are now citing cost concerns as their top reason for deferring healthcare needs, according to a recent Qualtrics survey.

About one in three respondents (31%) said they postponed care due to the costs, while 17% cited pandemic-related health concerns. As consumers face higher costs of living, some are avoiding healthcare needs to pay other bills. Nearly half (46%) cited high healthcare costs, while 43% cited the high overall cost of living in delaying care, the Qualtrics study found.

“I don’t think these concerns are going to go away,” Boissy said. “Patients have been telling us for some time that cost is a concern. It’s reinforcing what we know.”

People want care

Healthcare organizations need to understand why patients are postponing care, said Boissy, who joined Qualtrics last year. Qualtrics works with thousands of companies to help them understand what customers and clients need.

“I wanted to make sure we amplify the voices of people as we reimagine or transform care,” Boissy said.

She winces at the idea that some people care less about their health. Roughly one in four consumers (26%) didn’t pick up a prescription because they couldn’t afford it, according to the survey.

“We need to be really careful,” said Boissy, who is also a neurologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “It's not that people don’t want care. Sometimes I hear that in some of our language. We need to be more empathic.”

When patients delay care, they often end up with more serious health complications and run a greater risk of negative outcomes.

Healthcare organizations also pay the price when patients delay care. Hospital leaders around the country say they are seeing more patients who deferred treatment, and they now require longer, more expensive hospital stays. Researchers have found sharp drops in cancer screenings, according to a study published in Cancer in March.

“One of the greatest concerns of deferring care is we’re going to drive up overall costs in the long-term,” Boissy said.

Healthcare organizations need to do a better job of listening to their patients and communities, Boissy said. Many organizations have plenty of data on their communities, but they aren’t hearing what patients are saying.

Healthcare organizations have shown in the pandemic they can develop novel ways of reaching patients, such as setting up mobile vaccine clinics.

“During COVID when we were trying to bring patients back in, we saw that if you led with proactive outreach and communicated through channels they used or went into their communities, many organizations had a greater impact,” she said.

Health systems must get “much more creative about access,” Boissy said. Organizations could partner with libraries, places where consumers shop, or devise more ways to offer care at home.

Telehealth should also be a part of the mix of improving patient access to care, she said. Some patients don’t have two to three hours to line up child care, travel, and park to see a provider.

“That model doesn’t work for everybody anymore,” she said.

'Patients are different from consumers'

Hospital leaders are talking more about improving the patient experience and making it easier for patients to schedule appointments, pay bills and get care the way that they want it. Increasingly, hospital leaders said they are focusing on the consumer experience, especially as rivals such as Amazon, CVS, and Walgreens, among others, are getting into healthcare delivery.

Some healthcare leaders have said patients have greater expectations of health systems, but Boissy said that’s not necessarily accurate.

“I don’t resonate with the idea that patients have high expectations,” Boissy said. “They’ve been telling us the same thing all the time.”

She also said health systems shouldn’t be eyeing patients as consumers.

“Patients are human beings,” she said. “They are you and I. They want the same things we want. They might be scared.

“Patients are different from consumers. There's a vulnerability and fear driving their experiences.”

Health systems need to show they understand patients by making it easier to schedule appointments or pay bills. She said providers should send a message to patients: “We will make your life easier.”

“There’s enough suffering, whether you’re navigating a disease,” Boissy said. “We shouldn't add additional suffering with broken operations or revenue cycles.”

Organizations should have comprehensive listening strategies at every touch point, Boissy said.

Health systems pay close attention to surveys of patients in hospitals, which can affect their reimbursement. But health systems should be listening to those receiving outpatient services to see if patients’ needs are being met, Boissy said.

Organizations also need to understand how much patients value getting the chance to talk to doctors and nurses and feeling that somebody cares about them.

“If we were listening to what over decades of feedback has told us, the joy for patients is their time with their clinician and care team,” Boissy said.

She added, “We should be listening and paying attention to the pain that our patients experience.”

Healthcare leaders should consider how empathy is baked into all the ways their organizations meet with patients. Patients need to know they are being heard.

“Every human wants to be a part of the team,” Boissy said. “Every human wants to be cared about as a human.”

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