PatientEngagementHIT

To Boost Patient Satisfaction, Try a Little Provider Empathy

65% of patient satisfaction can be attributed to physician empathy, researchers from Massachusetts General say.

If you’re looking to improve your patient satisfaction levels, physician empathy is key.

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In a recent study out of Massachusetts General Hospital department of orthopedic surgery, a research team led by David Ring, MD, PhD, found that patients perceive their care as high quality when the provider shows them empathy.

By administering patient satisfaction surveys, empathy measures, health literacy tests, and outcomes assessments for 112 patients receiving hand surgery, the researchers were able to determine that physician empathy plays a tremendous role in improving patient satisfaction and overall care outcomes.

Overall, 65 percent of patient satisfaction was correlated with physician empathy, highlighting the importance of physician attitudes in care to overall patient satisfaction and patient engagement.

Interestingly, other factors often associated with patient satisfaction weren’t key factors. Appointment wait time, time spent with the physician, resident/fellow involvement, whether or not patients were seeking a second opinion, health literacy, and treatment choice were all negligible factors in patient satisfaction.

The researchers noted that while the above-mentioned factors should still remain high concerns for providers, this study shows the heavy influence physician empathy has on patient’s perceptions of their care. When a physician appears to care a lot about their patients, pitfalls in other areas may be more easily forgiven.

“This study shows that physician empathy is the best opportunity to improve the patient experience," said Ring, an orthopedic surgeon. "In prior studies, we've had trouble determining what specifically contributes to patient satisfaction, so a finding that empathy explains 65 percent of the variation in satisfaction is really powerful."

To help providers further improve patient satisfaction through practicing physician empathy, the research team suggest more coaching in bedside manner.

"My patients and I have benefited greatly from my coaching and practice of more effective communication strategies," Ring explained.

Getting that kind of coaching is important, too, especially as the industry shifts from volume-based to value-based payment models. When patients are more satisfied and perceive better quality of care, physicians see benefits, too.

“As health care transitions from a fee-for-service to an outcomes-based environment, enhancing the patient experience has become a priority for both policymakers and clinical leaders,” the research team said in its report introduction. “Despite the popular saying ‘patients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,’ little is known about the influence of provider empathy on patient satisfaction in a specialty surgical office. In a highly specialized and technical field such as hand surgery – in which the usual model of clinical care is ‘find the problem and fix it’ – identifying whether patients value affective concern is important for quality improvement purposes and may have economic and clinical implications.”

Further research confirms these findings.

Just recently, CDW Healthcare found that patients who feel most engaged in their healthcare are being personally engaged by their providers. By asking patients open-ended questions, making them partners in their own healthcare, and spending more time listening to and educating their patients, providers can improve overall patient engagement and patient satisfaction.

Other studies show that when providers take a moment away from their computers and EHRs, patient satisfaction rises. In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that following care encounters with low computer usage, 83 percent of patients reported high satisfaction levels. This shows that personal connection between patients and providers – one without a computer screen separating the two – is key for higher patient satisfaction.

“High computer use by clinicians in safety-net clinics was associated with lower patient satisfaction and observable communication differences,” the study authors said. “Although social rapport building can build trust and satisfaction, concurrent computer use may inhibit authentic engagement, and multitasking clinicians may miss openings for deeper connection with their patients.”

Going forward, providers should remain cognizant of their bedside manner and their ability to connect with patients. As payment shifts from volume to value, improving upon patient satisfaction and perceived quality of care will be critical in staying effective in the healthcare space.

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