It’s been an hour, and the doctor has yet to arrive at the cramped exam room. The clock on the wall softly ticks on, and bad cell service leaves the mother and her child with little to do but study the faded anatomical posters and health infographics hanging from the wall. The mother feels the exhaustion begin to sink in as her daughter nods off on the paper-covered bed; the tiredness a result of a four-hour flight and twenty-minute car ride. She’d taken the trip because she read that this hospital had some of the best cardiologists in the country and she wanted — needed — the best advice for her daughter’s heart condition. But when the doctor finally breezes in to check her daughter, she wonders if she hasn’t wasted a trip. The man asks curt questions and gives brief answers to the questions she’d kept scribbled down on a sheet of paper in her bag, clearly seeking to move on to the next room. Other specialists quietly run tests, and the mother impatiently waits for results — or even just an update on her daughter’s condition. When the pair finally leaves for their flight home, opinion in hand, the mother wonders if the care her daughter received was truly the best she could have gotten.
Success in healthcare comes at the intersection of empathy, skilled service, organization, and business savvy. As the above scenario demonstrates, quality care hinges on more than just well-thought out medical solutions or a doctor’s ability to perform textbook-perfect procedures; to find real and sustainable success, healthcare institutions need to maintain a human-centered philosophy of care. This might seem redundant — after all, medical care is by definition patient-focused — but there is a clear separation between merely checking off a set care to-do list and going the extra mile to ensure that the patient has a positive experience. Regardless of the caliber of care received or skills of the treating physician, the mother of the patient depicted above wouldn’t bring her daughter back for a second consultation if she didn’t feel as though she and her child were valued. This disconnect between the patient’s perception of care and its actual quality isn’t a problem with the individual doctors, but a managerial issue that must be handled from the top down.
Establishing empathetic care structures can be daunting for investors and on-the-ground organizers alike. It’s easier and less costly not to spend the time and money; to stick with tried-and-true frameworks that function acceptably well. Moreover, healthcare executives and providers often face cost, competition, and regulatory pressures that make re-tuning care delivery for changing patient needs seem like a dream for the future, rather than an issue for the present. But putting in the effort truly does yield results: as one 2017 study found, patients “reported more beneficial health behaviours, less symptoms and higher quality of life and to be more satisfied with treatment” when they engaged with and trusted their providers. This is positive not only for the provider but also for the healthcare institution as a business: half of all patients trust their doctors for specialist recommendations and rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends or relatives when they seek out primary care services. An institution that prioritizes empathetic care structures stands to enjoy a high rate of satisfied patients and draw in a great deal of business via referrals as a result.
Health industry investors and institution leaders need to adopt a twofold perspective: one that can both account for an institution’s business interests and remain mindful of its role as a human-centered organization. To accomplish this, they need to keep an eye on shifting patient priorities and establish management structures that priorities high-quality and empathetically-delivered care. The last will be what determines whether an institution cultivates a culture that draws trusting, loyal patients back again and again — or creates a culture that turns dissatisfied patients away. A senior recovering from hip surgery might not remember their physical therapist’s exact credentials or the awards the rehabilitation center has won, but he’ll certainly remember the administrators who made sure that he had the home visits he needed when he couldn’t drive and the real concern that the therapist showed each visit. In the end, the care that makes a difference isn’t just medical.