The Empathy Trap

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The Future of Health Podcast Goes Live

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Last week we had our first Future of Health Podcast Party at the Health:Further Festival. Hosted by Openbox, a crew from Health:Further, along with several speakers and other guests, gathered at InDo Nashville to meet, hang out, have some drinks and snacks, and…well, do a podcast. Live.

The topic was empathy in healthcare. Or at least, it was supposed to be.

The word “empathy” was used throughout the Festival. If we’re going to (re)create a patient-centric medical system, we have to understand the patients and empathize with them. That means learning about them and then designing products, resources, experiences and facilities that fit their backgrounds/perceptions/expectations/needs.

So Community Editor David Shifrin sat down with three people to talk about how to design a better healthcare experience. Those individuals were Marquise Stillwell, Founder & Principal of Openbox (and party sponsor); Marcus Whitney, Founder & CEO of Health:Further; and John Farkas,CEO and Chief Storyteller at Golden Spiral Marketing.

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All three spend a lot of time — a lot — thinking about how to design around people. Not in the abstract, but how to create products or implement ideas that connect with specific people (or at least specific groups of people). But it goes way beyond just thinking about it, the three of them have been very successful in implementing those ideas and building well-designed, people-centric products.

And that’s why it was a surprise when Marquise started the conversation by challenging empathy:

“I feel like in some ways we’ve overused the word ‘empathy’ to make up for people and individuals that we haven’t actually [engaged] that actually represent [our target] communities. And in design sometimes we use empathy as a way to say that we can connect with individuals and feel who they are, but I think we need to go a step further and start to talk about empowerment.”
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Basically, we talk a good game, but don’t follow through with actually making things work for the people, the communities, that we’re empathizing with.

John pointed out that technology lets us “hole up and define their own little space,” removing the need for direct, personal interactions. It makes empathy far more difficult.

Marcus considered empathy as a starting point. It’s necessary, but not even close to sufficient. It can be used as an excuse, a replacement for “just doing the work and engaging people.”

What does this mean for healthcare?

First, healthcare has been traditionally physician-centric: focused on the experts rather than the end users. Empathy, as Marcus noted, is generally used to describe the response of a person in power:

There’s an implication that we’re talking about it from the perspective of a person in power needing to have empathy…physicians, or designers, or creators, because they’re creating something for someone else, so you need to have empathy to have the right outcome.”
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However, in the healthcare equation, the patient also has an enormous amount of power. A patient and her family are experts about her. Sure, the physician is the expert in the medical details — thank God for medical practitioners and their training and expertise. But they are generally not experts about the patient herself. If we are going to (re)create a patient-centric health system, we need to understand individual patients, not just the details of their medical situation. Therefore, empathy looks like a clinician relinquishing the power and giving it back to the other individual. Empowering her (and her support group) to be more active in the delivery of care by asking questions and pointing out details about her.

It’s important to reiterate that this is simply a realignment. It’s not asking clinicians to be subservient to patients when it comes to medical practice. It’s about acknowledging and then taking advantage of the expertise that each participant brings to the process, making for a far more holistic (in the literal sense) experience. It’s about creating a partnership between individuals who have dedicated their lives to caring for others, and those who are struggling to return to health.

This is where the empowerment Marquise spoke about comes into play. Giving people the physical and figurative space to get involved in their care. For example, he mentioned redesigning and renaming the waiting room to the “engagement room.” John talked about using technology and generally redesigning the system to allow for more time in which questions can be asked, conversations carried out. The current system puts physicians in a bad spot where they have mere minutes to check in on a patient. It’s not enough time to dig in and really understand who that person is and why she might be responding to care the way she is.

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At this point in the conversation, John stepped in with a powerful, personal story. He described three weeks in the ICU with his father, leading to a tragic and, he believes, entirely preventable outcome. It was the culmination of a lack of empathy and poor design on the part of the medical system, and it ended with a physician asking John, “what happened?”

Where could we be if we rebuilt the system so that there is room for a question that isn’t “what happened?” but “what is happening?”

Ultimately, empathy in healthcare means something simple, yet very profound. Marcus connected the dots late in the conversation. “There’s a word I don’t like: ‘patient.’ I don’t like it!” The word we’re looking for is “person.”

How much will shifting our perspective from thinking about patients to thinking about people change the the way we design the health experience?