Designing Empathy into the Patient Experience


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I’d like to tell you a quick story about Michelle one of our patients. Michelle came to us for a CT scan due to inflamed lymph nodes. The day of her procedure, she met with Lynn, one of our technologists. As she listened to Michelle’s concerns, Lynn shared personal stories about her niece and best friend living with the same condition as Michelle, and described what she should expect. Soon after her procedure, Michelle sent an email to Lynn:

“Lynn, I wanted to let you know how grateful I am to you for your kindness, empathy and gentle bedside manner. It was most comforting to me today. You have a beautiful personality which is perfectly suited to your role in helping patients through a stressful situation. Please know that you made my experience much less stressful.”

It’s stories like these that inspired us as we designed the imaging clinic of the future. Delivering an improved patient experience – like Michelle’s – was paramount. Here’s how we did it.

First, a reminder: health care is a care service
Unfortunately, most patients don’t get the “Lynn treatment,” or at least they don’t feel like they do. According to a 2016 GE Healthcare study, 81 percent of patients are unsatisfied with their healthcare experience.

But there’s loads of opportunity inside of that seemingly threatening number. Today, the reality is that people don’t tolerate bad experiences, they gravitate towards companies that deliver outstanding ones. They’ve become accustomed to expect more, whether they’re at the doctor’s office, the Apple store, or the Four Seasons. Whatever the service, patients are comparing it to the experiences they have outside of health care.

Clearly, there’s so much more we can do to delight our patients. Traditionally, our focus is more on procedure, paperwork, and hyper-efficiency, and less on understanding the people behind it all. Of course, health care should be efficient; it must adhere to processes, rules, and regulations. But we have to keep in mind that health care is, at its heart, a service industry. People forget that. Delivering truly delightful service to patients requires empathy – the “Lynn treatment.” Without it, the experience suffers.

Embrace outside industries, backgrounds, and perspectives
In health care, we are so good at taking care of the physical needs of our patients. But we’re not as good at making their experience special – whether that means taking strides to alleviate a patient’s anxiety or simply making it easier to book an appointment. As the CEO of Hyatt said about a person’s experience, “there’s a huge difference between service and care. You can serve without caring but you can’t care without serving. Ultimately the path (to this change) is empathy.”

When we began exploring directions for our new clinic, we looked outside of health care for inspiration. We learned from hospitality and retail. We toured art galleries. We looked at Disney, which has designed its culture and innovation processes with the customer at the center. The result is wow-worthy customer experiences that brings a bit of “magic” to every customer interaction.

These outside perspectives led us in directions we would never have thought to pursue otherwise. For example, our new clinic includes the role of a host whose sole task is to make patients feel welcome, warm and cared for. We’ve also made our radiologists more visible by designing offices with tempered glass walls, which helps to create a sense of transparency and lessens the intimidation and unknown in the clinical experience.

Empower employees like Lynn to push the boundaries
Hiring outside your industry also helps. My own background is in luxury hotels. Someone I hired recently spent time studying abroad, a summer sailing through the Northwest Passage, and is currently developing an online game with a group of friends. That’s someone who’s going to push boundaries and get creative with solving problems.

Diversity is an asset; it brings new insights and perspectives to any challenge and gets people to start thinking differently. The key is to empower them, regardless of background or title, with the creative freedom and flexibility to imagine the experience they want for patients or customers. It gets employees in an empathetic state of mind, and it makes them feel invested.

We sought advice from front-line staff on how to improve customer service. For example, they said patients were complaining about a two dollar parking fee. So, the team suggested that we pay it. And we agreed. Small wins like these add up to something big: they incite teams to think like the people they serve, and act on behalf of patients’ best interests.

Integrate the patient’s perspective into everything you do
Fundamental to our mission to insert empathy into the patient experience was understanding our patients’ perspectives, and weave them into the entire process. To do that, we partnered with global agency C Space. Together, we reframed our approach, with patients as our focal point. Instead of attempting to create an imaging clinic that provides outstanding patient experiences, we wanted to turn an outstanding patient experience into an imaging clinic.

Through participant observation and ethnographic interviews, we gained a deep understanding of both the patient and employee perspective in various imaging clinics. We mapped the patient journey to understand the emotional highs and lows that align to that journey. We learned, for example, that patients enter the clinic with an emotional need to “be received” while our team were focused on the business need to “check them in.” We also learned that employees felt unfairly tethered to the paperwork side of patients’ problems. They wanted to empathize with patients and to receive them warmly into the clinic, but didn’t have the time, support, or permission to engage in more meaningful interactions. So, we translated these insights into a compelling video that was shown during a “State of the Nation” meeting of leadership and employees. This helped align our people around the common goal of improving the patient experience.

Innovate as partners, co-create as equals
Next, we ran a series of co-creation workshops. Executives, front-desk staff, radiologists, technologists, and patients collaborated as equals to design experiences that work for patients as well as for the business. This was a breeding ground of insight, empathy, and innovative thinking. Ultimately, this got them thinking beyond the paperwork and the minutia of day-to-day operations. It connected them to patients’ needs on a more personal level.

In an increasingly competitive market, we are now providing a more tailored and caring patient experience, advancing the strength of our brand, and empowering employees to drive innovation from the bottom up. By bringing patients and stakeholders together, we built products, services, and experiences that solve business challenges with empathy for patients’ needs. For example, new digital tools, designs, and service packages are all designed around patients. We have redesigned staff training, facilities, and services to ensure outstanding patient experiences across the entire clinic network.

Designing empathy into the patient experience requires a fundamental shift in organizational operation and mindset. Simply adding a few iPads to the waiting room won’t accomplish this change. What will is rethinking the role patients, front-desk staff, physicians, and everyone involved in the continuum of care play in designing the very best patient experiences.

Jackie McAtee
Jackie is an executive-level business leader focused on delivering growth through innovation, insight and engagement. A motivator with 20+ years of experience in building and empowering teams to achieve the best result, Jackie is a strategic thinker with strong business acumen. Jackie was recognized as the Marketing Person of the Year in 2007 from Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts and winner of the Innovation Award from Dubai Holding in 2008.


  1. Good article Jackie

    Diversity in hiring is an asset and brings new perspectives. In the healthcare sector where their is a frenzied interest from technologists and start-ups, we can’t forget the fundamentals of “health” ” care” ‘business” and that includes service. The leading providers are finding the balance through service and understanding the customer (patient) journey.


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