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Compassion: Hospital priority, critical competency

February 4th, 2013

by Doug Della Pietra

Inspired by Fred Lee, author of "If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently," and his webinar "You Cannot Manage Perceptions in the Same Way You Manage Outcomes," 15 team members and I reflected a couple of weeks ago on the following statements:

1. "It's easy for me to feel compassion towards patients, family members, visitors and others who ... "
2. It's hard for me to feel compassion towards patients, family members, visitors and others who ... " 1

Responses to the first statement include those who look upset, have no family, are distressed or in need, or have health issues to which the team can personally relate.

Times when it is hard to feel compassion include people who are disrespectful, mean, condescending, impatient and demanding, have an attitude or feel entitled.


Next, I asked, "There's something--an action inside us--that happens between our experience of other people's rudeness, impatience, entitlement, etc. and the resulting challenge of feeling compassion for them. What is it?"

We discovered in an eye-popping "aha" sort of way what Lee already knew: "Judgment is the enemy of compassion."

In a recent blog post, Louise Altman summarized a key conclusion from a presentation Stephen Porges, Ph.D. gave last summer at The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions conference in Colorado: "Judgment and defensiveness turn off the heart connection." (Emphasis mine.)

Amid pressing issues like healthcare reform, consolidations, ICD-10, information system and meaningful use requirements, and value-based purchasing, a major reason compassion needs to be a strategic hospital priority--along with its proven quality, safety, clinical and human-centered benefits--rests on the consensus among customer (and patient) experience experts: How we are--and the quality of individual moments--while we do what we do is the key differentiator for hospitals and the patient experience in this "age of the customer."

Lee has noted that patient satisfaction remained flat and practically unchanged from 1998-2008.2 From Lee's perspective hospitals are not service but rather healing organizations. Thus, hardwiring universal service excellence standards like friendliness, courtesy, problem solving, respect and helpfulness can help hospitals improve patient perception scores only so much.

Lee doesn't mean to imply that patients do not want or even expect those universal service standards; they do. Yet, healing organizations require caregivers who are compassionate, engaged and able to read the emotional cues of patients to personalize care.3

Even a service organization like Chik-fil-A gets it! They created a training video in which the video momentarily freezes every time the camera focuses on a customer or employee in the restaurant. Next to the person's face appears a short "life story."

For example, the story of a man in his 30s or 40s ordering at the counter reads "Fired from his job and is worried how he will provide for his family." The camera spotlights a woman sitting in a booth and drinking coffee: "Husband of 49 years died last month. Today would've been their 50th anniversary."

The video's title "Every Life Has a Story" drives home the main message: The life stories of others are powerful entry points to make "heart connections" that can lead to remarkable customer experiences. If Chik-fil-A incorporates empathy/compassion training for its employees how much more must hospitals--healing organizations--do so?

Refraining from and suspending judgment and developing a curiosity about the life stories of others can turn on (or keep open) all-important heart connections at powerful entry (touch) points across the continuum of care. Just as vital for healing as other core measures is the ability of physicians, nurses and other caregivers to turn on the heart connection of compassion--a hallmark competency for healing organizations like hospitals.

1. Lee, Fred. You Cannot Manage Perceptions in the Same Way You Manage Outcomes. The Beryl Institute. Webinar Presentation. November 30, 2012, slide 23.
2. Slide 7. Data presented by Lee came from Press Ganey Associates, Inc.
3. Ibid, slide 13.

Doug Della Pietra is the director of Customer Services and Volunteers for Rochester General Hospital in New York, where he co-chairs the hospital's Patient Experience Team, in addition to responsibilities for an intentionally-designed patient- and family-centered volunteer program and front-line First & Last Impression initiatives. Follow Doug @DougDellaPietra on Twitter.


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