Cleveland Clinic Believes Empathy Training is the Key to a Superior Patient Experience

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The same way many retail brands have a strong focus on customer experience in their strategies, healthcare providers are striving to do the same for their patients.

Patient experience is an all-encompassing term which covers every single interaction a person has with your healthcare organization. From the moment they book their first appointment with the doctor, through tests, diagnoses, and treatment, right up until being given the all clear, you need to make sure their experience is a pleasant, dignified, and as relaxing as it possibly can be, given the circumstances.

Cleveland Clinic believes the path to a superior patient experience is through empathy, so the organization has provided extra training to its people to help them better connect with their patients.

Cleveland Clinic

This movement began when Cleveland Clinic CEO, Toby Cosgrove MD, was asked at a conference how his organization teaches empathy. Cosgrove found he was unable to answer the question, a fact which frustrated him and opened his eyes to the need for a change in the culture at Cleveland Clinic.

"Cleveland Clinic's patient experience improvement efforts included hiring the health system's first chief experience officer and sitting its staff members - both clinical and nonclinical - down for a half-day session on how to better connect and empathize with patients," said Cleveland Clinic's Sales and Marketing Director, Jerry Fiala. "Because the health system rethought its internal culture and approach to the patient experience, its staffers view patients differently than they did before."

The new initiative covers all 50,000 caregivers at the Cleveland Clinic and involves a wide-ranging suite of new concepts - ideas such as providing patients with checklists to help them prepare for a procedure and trying to anticipate their worries and concerns.

The initiative is also getting staff to think about "the hug factor" - i.e. If someone was treating me in the way I'm delivering treatment, would I want to give them a hug? It's all about caregivers constantly reassessing their own behavior with patient experience and empathy in mind.

Cleveland Clinic is also putting empathy front and center at its own Patient Experience Summit.

"As caregivers, improving the patient experience is our collective responsibility," said the Cleveland Clinic in a press release. "Success comes from the ability to work together, share best practices and challenge each other to identify new ways to provide better care. Cleveland Clinic's Patient Experience Summit is the premier opportunity for anyone in the healthcare industry to network, learn, collaborate and discuss ideas on how to deliver the best clinical, physical and emotional experience to patients and their families."


One of the biggest lessons Cleveland Clinic is teaching as part of the training program is how to differentiate between caring and empathy.

In this industry, it's very easy for your employees to sit back and say, "I'm a caregiver working in healthcare. Of course I care." However, empathy isn't about what you do, it's about how you feel, and how you communicate those feelings to your patients. Caring means to express concern in someone's situation, but empathy is about putting yourself in their shoes and really trying to see the world from their perspective.

The SAVE mnemonic is one way the Cleveland Clinic is helping its staff become more empathic.

  • Support: "I'm going to look after you."
  • Acknowledge: "Chronic pain is a terrible thing to live with."
  • Validate: "I would be frustrated if I were in your position."
  • Emotion naming: "You seem upset."

Caregivers must also learn and accept that empathy will be easier with some patients than with others.

"Empathetic communication is easy when the patient is someone you can easily relate to," said Dr. Cameron MacGougan. "But patients with disruptive behavior, drug-seeking behavior, chronic pain, somatization, unreasonable expectations or with a disease that is a consequence of self-inflicted behavior (like substance abuse) can be challenging. Delivering bad news or disclosing a medical error can also lead to tough conversations."

Final Thoughts

Empathy is clearly an important part of delivering exemplary patient experience and the Cleveland Clinic seems to be making all the right moves with its new training program. If staff can become empathizers as well as caregivers, they'll be able to make the healing process as pleasant as is possible for their patients.

Innovative training programs are set to be a hot topic at HR Healthcare 2019, being held in June, at the Hyatt Regency Austin, TX.

Please download the agenda today for more information and insights.

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