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Healing is Not Enough: Cleveland Clinic Lessons in Patient-Centered Empathy

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

cleveland clinic logoAs the semi-fabled story goes, Toby Cosgrove, MD—CEO and President of the Cleveland Clinic—experienced a significant moment of awareness a few years ago. At a speaking engagement at Harvard’s business school, someone in the audience described a candid and personal experience about “empathy” over “outcomes.”

The person in the audience told Dr. Cosgrove (a cardiac surgeon) that her physician father had selected the Mayo Clinic over Cleveland Clinic for his own heart surgery “because it [Mayo] had a reputation for far greater empathy and communication in dealing with patients.” At the time, the Clinic had a leading reputation for heart procedure outcomes, but, shockingly, was also known for a lack of empathy toward patients.

That was 2005. "I have come to understand that there is more to quality health care than great outcomes," he explained to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper. "There is the entire experience that patients have…it is about communication and the expression of care and concern at times when they are most needed."

If it is good enough for Cleveland Clinic....

In the years since, the changes at Cleveland Clinic have been dramatic and are well worth emulating. The former “physician-centered” and “outcomes-driven” healthcare delivery mindset is now purposely “patient-centered” and embraces the quality of caring.

The progress and leadership of Clinic represent best practice concepts that are valuable tools for hospital administrators, medical practices and healthcare marketing professionals. What’s more, they actively share and exchange ideas through events such as their recent Patient Experience Empathy + Innovation Summit.

Our own Stewart Gandolf participated as a panelist and speaker at the event. And Cleveland.Com posted an insightful article titled, Art of patient satisfaction meets the science of medicine. There’s no way to capture it all, but a few of the key ideas from the Clinic and the Summit include:

  • Training: All 43,000 Clinic employees attend half-day sessions dedicated to improving the patient and employee experiences while learning how to express empathy and skills to connect better with patients.
  • Leadership: Since 2006, the Clinic has its own Chief Experience Officer (Dr. James Merlio). Among many other things, outcomes and performance including patient experience.
  • Communications and Understanding: Physicians learn ways to improve patient interaction, particularly through asking “why” questions and sharpening their conversation techniques.
  • Cultural Shift: All employees are Clinic “caregivers.” From physicians to technicians to service employees, everyone is responsible for the patient experience, and for creating a patient-focused environment.
  • Patient Expectations: The Clinic’s patients are encouraged to ask questions and to be actively engaged (not intimated) during their stay at the facility.

The turn-around results are measurable and dramatic. “Two years ago, the Clinic ranked dead last in a national measure of patient satisfaction among 15 hospitals with more than 1,200 beds,” Cleveland.com reports. “This year, the Clinic was in first place.”

You’ll find a related post on this topic, Healthcare’s Consumerist Revolution and the Quality of Caring, on the Healthcare Success blog.

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