Cultivating Compassion: How to Improve the Patient Experience

Apr 12, 2018
7 min read

The Impact of our Actions

Imagine the ripple effect when a coin is tossed across the surface of water. How far does it extend?

This concept offers an opportunity to acknowledge the ways in which all of our behaviors have the potential to create a chain reaction when it comes to compassion. In what ways can we cultivate it and become invested in delivering care with this approach? How can we create a positive ripple effect when it comes to empathy?

Let’s examine these ideas together.

Staying Compassionate in a Changing Healthcare Landscape

Patients who are referred for rehabilitation services present to clinicians with many different issues, some of which we can impact more directly than others. We are challenged to provide high-quality care, often within tight time constraints, which poses a threat to service excellence.

We are charged with quickly and expertly appreciating the various details of our patients’ conditions in an effort to create thoughtful, comprehensive treatment plans. By far, the most important gift that we can offer is compassion. We sometimes take for granted the meaning behind what we do and forget the potential significance of our impact. In consideration of this, there are many ways in which we can improve the outcomes of our care by cultivating a culture of compassion.

In our daily interactions with our clients, we are faced with many barriers which influence our decisions about how to best deliver our services. It has become increasingly easier to get caught up in all of our responsibilities as we go about our day given the parameters within which we function. The clock is always ticking, documentation is looming and our caseloads are growing.

As a result, we sometimes lose sight of the most critical aspect of what we do best - we listen.

A Great Clinician Listens - and Shows Compassion

In my experiences both as a therapist and a patient, I have learned what distinguishes the great clinicians from the good ones. What stands out is their ability to listen and communicate empathetically.

I believe that most of us were driven to enter our respective clinical professions for noble reasons, yet the structure and design of our current healthcare system continues to challenge our ability to remain patient-centered.

As changes continue to occur, it has become even more imperative that we focus on the ultimate goal of fostering trust in an effort to help our patients achieve success. Sometimes this process happens organically - we connect immediately with certain individuals while we struggle to relate with others. We don’t always have the luxury of working with people whose personalities match ours. Regardless, we must find ways to communicate effectively. It is during these times that we are especially challenged to infuse our care with compassion.

When We Lack Compassion, the Result is Patient Dissatisfaction

A primary reason for patient dissatisfaction is the lack of trust between the individual and the clinician. This issue subsequently affects attendance, compliance, and overall outcomes of care.

I have witnessed this many times in the process of fielding patient complaints during my time as a supervisor in the outpatient setting. What I have since begun to appreciate is that at the core of these complaints was the general feeling of disconnection and distrust.

More often than not, this lack of trust stemmed from the patient feeling that his or her concerns were not heard. Examining these scenarios offers us an opportunity to scrutinize the ways in which we interact not only with our patients but with one another. We must ask ourselves how well we demonstrate compassion and empathy and what we can do to become more proficient in this skill.

Those of us who have had personal experiences as patients or caregivers prior to becoming clinicians may have a more innate ability to relate to people in ways that promote a high degree of trust. In reflecting on our own interactions with medical professionals, we can easily recall the experiences when we ultimately felt that our time and concerns were respected as opposed to instances when it was clear that our time was not valued and our concerns were not addressed. What were the main factors that differentiated these encounters?

Being Present is Key

I believe that the key difference is the willingness of the practitioner to be fully present and listen. This changes the dynamic and creates a foundation for building trust. While we are fundamentally aware of this principle, it isn’t always easy to maintain. Due to the immense pressures that we face, we may become detached, apathetic and complacent. Consequently, our ability to communicate and build trusting relationships suffers. It is crucial as healthcare providers that we remain committed to augmenting our emotional intelligence. By doing so, we will inspire more meaningful interpersonal connections and create an empathetic environment. Ultimately, this has a positive impact on our outcomes, helps us build stronger teams, and promotes long term success for the organizations within which we work.

Tools for cultivating compassion in your daily workflow:

  • Listen intently - Learn the difference between hearing and listening. Active listening involves being fully present and creating a safe space for the individual to be heard.
  • Communicate effectively - Recognize the importance of your non-verbal gestures as well as your verbal communication. Seek ways to improve your communication skills. Learn the value of repeating back to the patient what he/she verbalizes to you. This will also keep you engaged in the active listening process.
  • Be genuine - Never underestimate the power of a first impression. Always be mindful of how you present yourself when you first meet your patient and in all of your subsequent encounters.
  • Be impeccable with your word - Keep your word. Your words carry just as much weight as the actions that follow. Strive to match your actions with your intentions.
  • Don’t make promises that you can’t keep - Patients often have very high expectations. We are givers, helpers and advisers who focus on providing the best care possible. Sometimes we overestimate our influence as related to the brevity of our interactions. The only promise worth making is one that you can keep. Let your patients know that you promise to do the best you can in helping them reach their full potential. Focus on achieving function vs. perfection.
  • Demonstrate your investment in patient care - Set the standard at the inception of care. Adopt the habit of clearly explaining the plan and goals and make it clear that this is a team effort. Reinforce that it is the patient’s responsibility to actively participate. Make it clear that while you may not have all of the answers all of the time, you will always make an effort to find appropriate resources to guide the patient in receiving the best care. For those who present with cognitive challenges, involve the family and/or caregivers as early on as possible.
  • Practice self-compassion - Perhaps this is the most important piece of advice I can offer. While this may not be a popular concept in our field or in general, examine the ways in which you can cultivate and practice self-compassion. Many of us experience our own health challenges as we simultaneously strive to fulfill our role as clinicians. Our healthcare climate at large is not designed to address or prioritize provider wellness as this is viewed solely as an individual responsibility. As you research options for your patients regarding wellness resources, also consider how these may benefit you and your co-workers. Seek support by starting a dialogue with your colleagues and the leaders of your organization to identify pathways to support and sustain collective wellness.

Through all of these measures, we learn to understand and practice compassion. We are always evolving as clinicians and as people. We are capable of reflecting on our weakness and making conscious choices to invest time and energy in self-improvement. In doing so, we create the opportunity to transform not only the patient experience, but also ourselves by becoming ambassadors of compassion.