Conveying empathy through digital tools requires education, support

Panelists at Cleveland Clinic's Patient Experience Summit discuss the challenges and opportunities of conveying empathy through digital tools.
By Laura Lovett
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Miscommunication and misinterpretation have long plagued text and email messaging. But when it comes to healthcare communication the stakes are high. Balancing efficiency and empathy in text communications can be a difficult task for medical teams. 

“There are many ways in which we communicate digitally,” Dr. Richard Frankel, of the Indiana University School of Medicine, said this morning during a panel at the Cleveland Clinic's Patient Experience: Empathy and Innovation Summit, presented in collaboration with MobiHealthNews' parent company HIMSS. “I think with email and secure messaging it’s much more difficult to express empathy and there is a much greater potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication.”

There’s no denying that text communication poses its own set of challenges, but the panelists agreed there’s no way of stopping the technology. Now the conversation is shifting to how caregivers can be educated to facilitate empathy via digital tools. 

“They need to be aware that as wonderful as a person someone might be, they are going to be more inclined to be a little bit more terse when they are on a digital platform,” Amy Windover,  director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Excellence in Healthcare Communication, said during the panel. 

Medical educators have long taught empathy to their students, but applying those skills to a digital medium is a relatively new conversation. 

“You can teach these skills and they can be learned and mastered, and they can become experts at it and improve that patient and caregiver experience,” Dr. Steven Kaplan, associate chief medical officer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said. “When I first started thinking about this … I thought it was the same skills [for digital as in person] — you want to ask open-ended questions, you want to use expressions of empathy. I think you have to be mindful you are doing it in a new modality. … If we are going to be expecting caregivers to deliver care through digital modalities, we have to role play those specific skills in those modalities, and have them practice it, struggle with it, get feedback on it and then learn to continue to practice on it and excel.” 

But the human-to-human connection won’t be possible unless providers understand how the technology works. Tech fluency can enable a better experience for patients and providers alike, according to Windover. 

“I also think learning how the technology works [is important],” Windover said. “Teaching people to look at the camera instead at the screen and the person's face, and being able to look at both, makes a big difference so it doesn’t come across as if you are just looking down at them the whole time. They might be wondering why aren’t you making direct eye contact —direct eye contact is critical for empathy. Ask them 'Have you had any previous experience with virtual visits or technology?' so patients are able to share their experience and you can align around that and be helpful for teaching empathy.”

Technology doesn’t have to be a barrier in communication. In fact, Kaplan noted that digital tools can help facilitate patient education.

“We teach our providers to use the computer [and], if you are in a room with a patient, to engage the patient,” Kaplan said. “Use the computer to show them X-rays, to show them laboratory test results. Let them look at them.”

While it may be easier to communicate face to face, there is hope for empathy-empowered patient-provider communication in the future. 

“I think email is very tricky — it is so easy to read [too much] into someone's email,” Frankel said. “But under the right conditions you can make it pretty clear you are empathizing.”

Focus on Patient Experience

In May, we'll talk to the thought leaders and first-movers reimagining how and where — Hint: outside their perimeter — and report on how they're to activate if not delight the people they treat.

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