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So much effort nowadays goes into discovering the best medical technologies to treat patients better and faster, while minimizing physician burnout. While digital innovation is what will ultimately help doctors achieve that goal, it’s also a more lengthy process that might take decades of research and massive investments.
Meanwhile, there is one way that physicians can improve their practice and see instant, tangible results: empathy.
No app, smart drug or tech device can replace a human connection. And health care providers are starting to realize that empathy is an overlooked tool in their practice.
The topic of empathy was at the core of Dr. Diane Sliwka’s presentation at the 14th Annual Midwest Hospital Medicine Conference that took place in Chicago, October 18th-20th. Organized by Northwestern Medicine, the conference gathered healthcare professionals from across the Midwest who shared their vision for the future of hospital medicine.
Sliwka, an associate professor of medicine and medical director of the Patient and Provider Experience at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF), taught her colleagues concrete ways to improve the patient experience.
She did that by using the loss of her dad as an example. Sliwka recalled the night a cardiologist took the time to call her from across the country and say that he did everything he could to resuscitate her dad. That one interaction helped her cope better with her loss and made her realize the importance of making patients feeling seen and listened to.
Improving doctor-patient relationships, she said, can lead to impressive results. Just to mention a few: improved pain control, reduced the risk of coronary heart disease, and reduced hospital readmissions by up to 40%.
“A lot of us feel like there’s no time to spend on this,” Sliwka said. In reality, she explained, this practice is not all that time consuming.
One key way to connect with patients is by listening. Uninterrupted, a patient will talk for about 90 seconds during which doctors can learn valuable details. About 50% of the cases could be diagnosed more accurately if doctors would listen more, she explained. “We only have half of the expertize. If we’re not paying attention, we’re missing half of the puzzle.” Sliwka suggested using “ICE” questions – about ideas, concerns, and expectations – as a way to uncover overlooked details.
The words a doctor uses could make or break the interaction with a patient. Instead of using “the patient refused” Sliwka recommended switching to “the patient preferred not to,” which will create a sense of camaraderie.
Humanizing the patient can also lead to better health outcomes. “Do small talk before the big talk and find something you like about that,” Sliwka told her colleagues. A patient, she added, wants to be seen as a person, not as a diagnosis.
Empathy also increases efficiency. Studies presented by Sliwka show that surgeon who made emphatic statement spent on average 12.5 minutes per visit versus 14 minutes for those who didn’t. For internists, the difference was slightly bigger: 17.5 minutes to 20 minutes.
Some examples of emphatic statements? “Let’s work together to figure this out.” “You seem worried. Is that right?” “I’m here to support you through this next step.”
Sliwka says the medical community still doubts the data has yet to fully embrace these concepts. “There’s a lot of skepticism that this is too ‘soft,’ Sliwka said. “Employing these kind of techniques makes our work more satisfying,” she concluded.
Sliwka was one of the many professionals that took the stage at the 14th Annual Midwest Hospital Medicine Conference and offered solutions to the most pressing issues faced by hospitalists. The roster of speakers included cardiologists, oncologists, pulmonologists, as well as geriatric, and ER specialists.