Your Patients and Customers Want Empathy

You might even say they need it.

I recently finished reading A General Theory of Love, which paints a poetic image of the science of love and human emotion. It’s a title I’d recommend anyone in the health care industry spend some time with. It was originally published in 2000, but its message is as pertinent as ever.

The authors hooked me when they recognized that the hard sciences are intricately woven together with the social sciences and humanities. They promised to take an artful look at the science of emotion through the lens of love, and delivered. It’s a somewhat radical notion coming from three M.D.s, but their call for empathy is well founded and offers insight into enhancing the patient/customer experience as well.

One of the most significant takeaways is just how vital human interaction and empathy are throughout the course of a human life. As infants, we thrive in close proximity to a motherly figure, and continue to depend upon emotional connections to those arounds us as we age. Without the proper limbic connections, the door opens for a whole host of developmental and health issues. And it’s devastating to find empathy faltering in the industry that has arisen to care for those issues and more: health care.

What’s more astounding is that so many studies have found that empathetic relationships are powerful healing agents in themselves and yet this often seems ignored. The authors share an anecdote that painfully highlights this:

A 1994 proposal in The Lancet, Europe’s most respected medical journal, advocated teaching acting techniques to medical students… providing physicians with the means to feign concern for patients, since their incapacity to care is too embarrassingly evident…

Here our finest doctors endeavor, without irony or shame, to pass off a good relationship as a kind of performance art.

We can all recall the empty feeling of dealing with a health care practitioner, or a customer service representative, who was only interested in the problem and not the person experiencing it. Thankfully many of us have also had the pleasure of a meaningful interaction in these situations, and how fulfilling that experience can be. If you are looking to enhance the experiences you provide for your patients/customers, empathy is a wonderful place to start.

Despite the focus on health care, I found a great amount to think about in my role as a designer. I’m committing to keep empathy at the forefront of my design decisions – to consider how I can help develop meaningful and genuine interactions. Won’t you?