Empathy Emerges as a Strategic and Humane Imperative in Healthcare

Empathy in healthcare emerged among the top recurring themes at leading healthcare conferences last year — Health 2.0, Connected Health and Exponential Medicine. Moreover, the hashtag #empathy has seen a surge on social media in recent years, as many healthcare leaders — Dr. Rasu Shrestha, Dr. Adrienne Boissy and Maram Museitif — have observed an empathy gap, especially in the digital health arena, and that empathy must be a strategic and humane imperative and a core value every health care delivery system.

Empathy is defined as the capacity to perceive and understand the emotions, feelings and circumstances of another person. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar who has done extensive research on empathy, has described four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing other’s emotions, and communicating their emotions. Taking someone’s perspective is about seeing the world from the other person’s point of view and understanding what matters to them. While it is not essential to have experienced the same pain points as those you are trying to empathize with, it is essential to understand their emotions at that particular point of their situation. In healthcare, empathy is essential for many scenarios; it helps to allay patients’ fears and uncertainty and builds a bond of trust to establish a care plan that makes the patient feel optimistic. Empathy leads to sharing and accountability, which are essential in building relationships that invoke emotional experiences.

DAccording to Dr. Jodi Halpern, Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, “Skillful use of clinical empathy is essential for all three major aspects of effective medical care: accurate diagnosis, treatment adherence, and patient activation…  We need innovative approaches to inculcate empathy in physicians, including exciting new interactive technologies that enable people to experience other people’s symptoms.” Moreover, companies like Klick Health have developed a Proof-of-Concept for a tele-empathy device to help foster clinical empathy and better care for the more than 40 million people living with movement disorders in the U.S. alone.  And empathy is not limited to the clinician-patient relationship, but rather it should permeate the corporate culture to address and prevent clinician burnout.

The healthcare industry is now immersed in digital health disruption for business and clinical transformation — connected devices and solutions which allow for the rapid exchange of information among patients, providers, payers and caregivers. Such technology advances are implemented to improve patient-centered care in remote settings. As value-based care models become more pervasive, care delivery will become less episodic and more continuous, compounding the unprecedented proliferation of digital health solutions.

How do we instill empathy on the path toward digital health transformation to enhance the patient journey and patient experience? There have been numerous efforts across the healthcare industry to bring empathy to the forefront. In 2016, Altrius Healthcare implemented empathy forums for their medical practice employees to integrate empathy into their daily work. It was their strategic imperative to build better relationships with patients. By engaging their clinicians and staff in conversations around empathy, the forums emphasized the importance of demonstrating empathy on patient care and teamwork, to support people in practicing empathy, and to learn the processes, behaviors, and words that convey this skill.


In her blog post for Carbon Health, Kirsten Schultz writes that we must innovate and use technology to improve the status quo in a human-centric way through human centered design and empathetic engagement with end users. “Considering the end user’s wants and needs gets the designer engaged in empathic thinking.”   Moreover, Todd Johnson, CEO of Healthloop, expressed the necessity for “digital empathy” to ensure solutions keep empathy at the forefront, so that “technology amplifies and extends the empathy of the physician so that it can reach more patients and reach them more regularly than has ever been possible in the past.”

Today’s digital health solutions are centered around apps for smartphones and tablets that facilitate and automate more frequent and appropriate interactions to keep patients connected in the ambulatory setting. Common features include:

(1) Connection with remote sensors and monitoring devices for disease management
(2) Integration with patient clinical and demographic data to deliver contextually and clinically relevant information to patients, including reminders, notifications and alerts, to avoid adverse events and eliminate care gaps
(3) On-demand, seamless access to the proper healthcare professionals via text, phone and/or virtual visits
(4) Information to patients on disease prevention, healthy lifestyles and wellness
(5) Recommendations and guidance for at-risk patients to appropriate clinical, ancillary or public health services

As the trend for digital tools is moving toward mobile platforms and cloud-based services, innovators and designers must also consider how to enhance and enrich features and capabilities, so that the tools remain adaptive, flexible, simple, convenient and ubiquitous. Designers need to both recognize and share in the emotions of the users and design solutions by spending time with these user groups and observing them with intent to gain a deep understanding their goals, desired results, frustrations, fears and behaviors. By developing empathy, designers will be better able to identify users’ unarticulated needs. Empathy allows more opportunities for co-creation with users, improving collaboration so that solutions yield better experiences and greater opportunities to reduce errors and achieve better outcomes.

Digital health requires a dedicated, highly skilled, multi-disciplinary teams of clinicians, researchers, technologists, data scientists, IT architects, solution designer and developers to guide, build and deploy solutions that yield measurable, impactful results. It requires making investment decisions based on the business case and a well-defined, complete set of evaluation criteria that align with strategic goals and objectives. It requires visionary leaders who champion innovation, make the tough decisions to execute, and persevere, often amidst adversity from conflicting stakeholder interests, with a sense of purpose, accountability and transparency.

Empathy must be embraced to achieve the purported benefits of digital health solutions: improved patient interactions and care coordination, increased provider productivity and efficiency, and encouraging behavior change for healthy lifestyles. The key to success is knowing how to appropriately engage users, based on necessity, urgency and personal preferences. i.e how, when and where to maximize frequency and depth of engagement so that digital health becomes ubiquitous to the patient experience.



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