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Empathy and Compassion in Healthcare


Empathy and compassion are two steps on the same path toward human connection. The first step is empathy. When we approach others with empathy, we approach them with an openness to learn and a curiosity about their experience. What are they feeling and why? What assumptions are we making about their inner lives that might be misguided or unfair? The next step is compassion, where we take what we’ve learned and put it into action. How can we change our own behaviors to best connect with and help others? What specific actions can we take? 

In recent years, and especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in every industry have been coming to understand the importance of finding and leading with compassion. Empathy alone may help foster connection, but it has little meaningful impact without compassionate action. Diving deep into the emotional lives of others without thinking proactively about what to do with that information can cause undue stress and be counterproductive

We’ve long known about the power of empathy and compassion in healthcare, particularly in the patient-provider relationship. Providers who demonstrate empathy and compassion by being active listeners, offering emotional support, and taking the time to patiently answer questions have improved relationships with patients, which in turn can improve patient outcomes. In her iconic 2014 essay, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison describes her work as a medical actor, where she pretended to be a patient so that medical students could practice these essential skills. What she learned was that empathy, and in turn compassion, plays an important role not only in developing strong patient-provider relationships, but in accurately diagnosing medical conditions. 

The importance of empathy and compassion in healthcare are not confined to the privacy of a doctor’s office. Every healthcare sector, from public health messaging to health insurance to healthcare tech and design, benefit from compassionate innovation. Take Doug Dietz, for example, who worked as a designer at GE Healthcare for more than 30 years. In a 2012 TEDx talk, Dietz described his inspiring MR Adventure Series. At the time when Dietz had the idea, 80 percent of children who had to undergo MRI scans needed sedation to get through the process. By talking to parents and children, watching them undergo these tests, and engaging with the families, Dietz came up with a new idea. He put his empathy into action and created a new, innovative, and compassionate design.

Dietz’s new machines weren’t loud, frightening, or claustrophobic. Instead, they were playgrounds that engaged each child’s sense of adventure and creativity. With the new machines in place, sedation rates went down, patient satisfaction went up, and hospitals were able to scan more children each day. “When you design for meaning, good things will happen,” Dietz says. 

Developing healthcare marketing communications in a similar way, with empathy and compassion at the center of every message, can have the same positive ripple effects throughout local and global communities. Here are three  practices, grounded in empathy and compassion, to bring into the healthcare marketing space:  

Demonstrate Curiosity

As Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner write in HBR, leaders don’t need to choose between compassion and performance. The key to successful, compassionate leadership lies in collecting data, asking questions, and pushing back against assumptions. In healthcare marketing, this means conducting careful research, engaging directly with communities, and actively listening to the people whose lives will be most impacted by new products and services. Sense-checks and sensitivity reads, for example, are an excellent way to demonstrate care and interest. 

Be Driven by Your Values

All effective marketing is value driven. Revisit your core values often and make sure they are relevant and consistent. Are your values serving the communities you’re working with? Are you not only gathering information, but actively taking steps to alleviate negative experiences and encourage holistic health? 

Develop a More Expansive Understanding of Wellness

Promoting wellbeing with compassion means being open to new definitions of wellness. When developing messages for an audience, figure out what health and wellbeing means to them. Show that you care not only about objective metrics of health, but about one’s subjective experience of physical and emotional wellbeing. Remember, each person and community has their own understanding of what makes a happy, healthy, and meaningful life.