How COVID (temporarily) Stunted Empathy in Healthcare—and What We Can Do About It

By Joy Avery, SVP of Clinical Strategy, CipherHealth
Twitter: @cipherhealth

Virtual care swapped for in-person. Final goodbyes said over a choppy Zoom call. Sterility dialed to the max in nearly every healthcare interaction. In so many ways, and to the anguish of physicians and nurses on the frontlines, the COVID-19 pandemic drove so many of the gentle touches of humanity out of caregiving.

In the winding months since, things have gotten better, but COVID-19 has forever changed the way caregivers interact with their patients and patients’ families.

As a nation, we’re still recovering from the shock of a digitized approach to caregiving at the height of the pandemic. Telemedicine was a godsend and most certainly saved lives, but it can also be an exceedingly cold experience for patients and caregivers. That sterility spread across care settings as distancing, masking, and other necessary precautions added layers and distance between patients, families and healthcare workers. Meanwhile, digitization of care across settings has not always been carried out with patient experience in mind.

That means that empathy—the driving force behind good, compassionate care—has some catching up to do for a new digital age. Caregivers need to examine the ways in which they carry out even the simplest interactions—and how the digital tools they use every day can either enhance or detract from empathetic, intimate care.

Amid an environment in which technology augments or replaces so many interactions that were previously face-to-face, the ways in which empathy is expressed—and the unintentional effects our use of technology has on it—need to be reconsidered.

Empathy’s impact on care

No matter the method of care delivery, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of empathy in the caregiver-patient relationship. Not only has clinical empathy been shown to improve the quality of care, it results in better patient outcomes. Simply put, it better enables frontline workers to treat patients.

What’s more, when patients perceive empathy from their caregivers, they give higher patient satisfaction scores, which has a direct line to reimbursements and revenue. Finally, patients that report having received empathetic care are more compliant with care plans and instructions.

Both from a clinical and business perspective, it’s clear that empathy is a prerequisite for success. But the ways to inject empathy into an increasingly digital care setting aren’t always so clear cut. There are, however, a few foundational considerations to enhance empathy and human touch:

Embed empathy into ongoing processes
Every single interaction with a patient is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy. From pre-care messages, to front desk check-in, to post-discharge outreach, there are chances for warmth and feeling. Perhaps most critical, however, is the point of care itself.

Patient rounding can be adjusted and optimized to be purposeful and empathetic, but healthcare workers need to be certain that the means of data collection, whether digital or manual, don’t take them out of the moment.

To make rounding truly empathetic, it shouldn’t be hurried. Caregivers should take the time to sit down at the bedside, offer a gentle touch where appropriate, and make steady eye contact. While it’s important from a data and analytics perspective to use standardized rounding questions, the clinical team shouldn’t be afraid to deviate and have human, heartfelt conversations during the rounding process.

Finally, it’s important to bring patients into the process. Taking a moment to show them digital rounding tools, explain the purpose, and how the information is used to enhance and personalize care shows patients that their input and opinions are valued.

Extend empathy beyond discharge
Patient care must extend beyond the four walls of the hospital. Empathy after discharge is critical—not only in ensuring that patients are equipped with the information they need to adhere to care plans, but also in making them feel heard if they reach out for additional information.

While automated outreach is a modern necessity to ensure accurate and timely information reaches patients without eating up valuable resources, it is a trade-off for human interaction. Therefore, it’s critical for providers to put automated post-discharge outreach in context for patients. Having a quick face-to-face conversation before patients leave the hospital to tell them what they can expect in terms of outreach can be invaluable.

Finally, timely responses—from a live person on the phone—when a patient reports an issue post discharge shows patients that they are important. A kind voice in a time of uncertainty can go a long way to building relationships and, more importantly, improving outcomes.

Prioritize patient face time
So much of a nurse’s day is spent mired in paperwork and data entry. Studies have shown that less than a third of nurses’ time might be spent with patients, while the rest is dominated by charting, care coordination, and care planning.

When nurses have to chart across multiple systems, they often end up entering data that’s duplicative. This kind of data siloing not only inhibits hospitals’ abilities to analyze data across systems to improve clinical and operational performance, every minute spent on duplicative data entry is a minute nurses could be spending at the bedside performing patient care and fostering trust.

Automation and data integration across critical systems like patient engagement and the EHR can get frontline staff back to what’s most important: providing in-person, empathic care.

Using technology as an empathy enabler
As much as we were forced to swap in-person care for digital substitutes during the pandemic, digital care can never compete with face-to-face, hands-on care when it comes to empathy. However, technology can be integral to improving care, providing critical context and real-time information.

What’s more, it would be incorrect to say that technology can’t enhance empathy—it most definitely can. It just can’t become another extraneous layer between a patient and their caregiver. When technology is used purposefully to make contextual connections and personalize care in the moment—and when caregivers ensure that patients understand why it’s being used—it can create an outsized impact. When patients understand that digital tools are being used to directly enhance their experiences in the hospital and beyond, they’ll understand and remember the empathetic care they receive.