Cleveland Clinic's path to a better patient experience began with a focus on empathy

Cleveland Clinic building
Improving the patient experience starts with empathy, according to Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland Clinic)

A positive patient experience starts with a little empathy.

At least, that's what Cleveland Clinic found when it began to focus on patient satisfaction in earnest several years ago after former CEO Toby Cosgrove, M.D., was asked at a forum how the system teaches empathy.

Cosgrove wasn't sure how to answer the question—and that spurred a cultural shift, said Jerry Fiala, the health system's sales and marketing director. "That culture change impacted all 50,000 caregivers at Cleveland Clinic," Fiala said. 

Fiala was among health system officials speaking on patient satisfaction at the annual Business Health Agenda conference hosted this week by the National Business Group on Health. 

RELATED: Cleveland Clinic names new CEO to take over for Toby Cosgrove 

Fiala said Cleveland Clinic's patient experience improvement efforts included hiring the health system's first chief experience officer and sitting its staff members—both clinical and nonclinical—down for a half-day session on how to better connect and empathize with patients. 

Because the health system rethought its internal culture and approach to the patient experience, its staffers view patients differently than it did before, Fiala said. (A video Fiala says the system uses to drive the point home is embedded below.)

Stephen Parodi, M.D., associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group, said Kaiser Permanente examines how patients experience care at all points across the continuum, including before they walk into a clinic or hospital and after they leave.  

Using that approach, Kaiser Permanente developed a new process aimed at improving patients' surgical recovery and ensuring they were better informed of what was going on. Patients are provided checklists to help them get ready ahead of a procedure, to prepare on the day of surgery and to know what to expect for recovery. The documents are also available online. 

"We really put a lot of thought into, 'What does the patient want?'" Parodi said. 

RELATED: The surprisingly simple way Dignity Health is reducing surgical site infections 

Programs like that have required a "change in paradigm" for both Kaiser Permanente staff members and patients themselves, Parodi said.  

He said that the patient experience should be embedded in the onboarding process for new hires, too. Kaiser's "habits" for an improved patient experience, such as a focus on empathy and listening, should be "printed" in staffer's heads. 

Brent Pawlecki, M.D., chief health officer at Goodyear, said that while a potential hire's credentials may be clear on paper, there is a specific vibe to look for as well when considering who may be the best choice in a patient-centered system. Called it the "hug factor" he explained they should consider whether this would be someone they'd want to hug.

He said he has employees who are interviewing applicants rate them on that idea after meeting. "You want that kind of person," Pawlecki said.