Like many other sectors today, healthcare is struggling to meet the seemingly fickle desires of the general public. Some blame the differences between the level of services provided by medicine and the high expectations of its patients upon demographic shifts and the consumerization of IT. However, there seems to be a more fundamental issue to consider: Healthcare often forgets what it feels like to be a patient.
A few months ago, I met with David Dorf, Senior Director of Technology Strategy, Oracle Retail, at the Oracle Connects conference in Boston. When I raised this issue to him, he said, “Customers, regardless of the context, don’t like to be treated like a number or a placeholder within a work schedule. They want the environment and all its people and processes to address them on a personal level. They want empathy.”
Again, we are back to the same fundamental problem, and I am not certain that it can be solved.
In 2011, a study presented in the Journal of American Medicine showed that doctors were significantly more likely to recommend treatments and procedures with higher mortality rates for their patients than they would agree to undergo themselves if they were sick. Since the release of this study, many have debated the underlying questions it presented, but I believe Dorf gets to the heart of the matter when he stated, “Doctors and administrators often mirror managers in retail, unfortunately. We believe we know what’s best for our customers, but we often establish policies and enact practices that we would hate to engage in if we were the ones waiting in line to spend our hard-earned money.”
It seems it is against our very nature, as we take on any role of authority, to empathize with our charges. Experienced teachers are often terrible students. Gifted athletes usually find it difficult to be effective coaches. Why should those in medicine be any different? We want to obligate doctors and staff to open themselves to the feelings of helplessness, fear and confusion their patients experience so that they may identify problem areas within their organizations, but are we fooling ourselves?
In medicine, time is fragmented and rigid. Working conditions are often high-stressed. The bureaucracy of government regulation, the large number of patients and low frequency of contact all contribute to the degradation of the empathy patients seek and require. Education faces eerily similar problems, possesses eerily similar resources and yields eerily similar unsatisfactory results.
Like so many of our so-called “caring” systems, perhaps healthcare is doomed to perpetuate these unconscious, perplexing and counterproductive relationship dynamics. Perhaps it’s the muddled working structures we create or our need for a proficient, authoritative figure to drive operations that will continue to stymie our hopes for deeper personal connections. Whatever the reasons, it may be time to admit that without radically altering the context of healthcare, far-reaching patient satisfaction may never be possible.