Make emotional connections for better patient experiences

Why do we remember some things and not others? Even when we share an experience with other people, the details and aspects we remember often differ from those of the others. Why?

"Emotions determine memory," sayscustomer experience expert Joyce Hostyn.

Gary Small, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine supports Hostyn's claim: "Any time we experience something in a heightened emotional state, we're more likely to remember it."

Therefore, the intensity of emotion I may experience can significantly differ from the intensity of emotion others experience, even when faced with the exact same situation and circumstances.


So, consider the patient experience. Fred Lee, author of "If Disney Ran Your Hospital," says only very satisfied and very dissatisfied patients have a story to tell.

That's precisely because, as Hostyn notes, "Emotions influence what we remember, how we evaluate encounters." Hostyn continues, "When we recount a memory, we're sharing the experience of the story we created, not the actual experience."

Undoubtedly, patients can and often do experience the gamut of emotions across the continuum of care: hope, despair, encouragement, confusion, fear, satisfaction, anger, disappointment, safety, loneliness, anxiety, support, depression, relief--just to name a few.

Moreover, every encounter that patients and their family members have with our healthcare organizations can trigger memory-making and story-creating emotions that fashion patient perceptions. In the end, the patient's collage of memories forms the patient experience.

In "What is Patient Experience," Jennifer Robinson, senior editor for the Gallup Business Journal, emphasizes the critical importance of making an emotional connection with patients while meeting both their emotional needs and "basic requirements for good service and medical care." With that comes "optimal patient experiences, ones that are deeply personally gratifying and that promote health."

So, how do we intentionally make emotional connections and meet the emotional needs of patients and their families without leaving it to chance?

Hostyn advises the following:

1. "Think of the memories you want to evoke, then design for those memories, NOT what messages to communicate or what media should carry them."

2. "Ask yourself, what would make a magic moment? Where would it be? What would it involve? How would it be staged? How would it be remembered? How would it be retold?"

3. "Look for opportunities to relieve anxiety, anticipate needs or surprise expectations."

4. Ultimately, "design interactions (that)

  • connect emotionally
  • foster a sense of control
  • build trust and relationships
  • help people make informed decisions
  • engage in conversation."

To illustrate, think of the raw emotions of grieving family members after the death of a loved one. In an effort to bring some peace and comfort to these "moments of truth," Sharp HospiceCare created its Memory Bear Program.

Family members provide articles of favorite clothing from their deceased loved ones. Trained volunteers stitch the clothing into a memory bear, which they give to the family on behalf of Sharp HospiceCare. The memory bear not only plays an integral role in preserving the memory of the family’s loved one but also creates another storybook moment, namely, Sharp's personalized care and concern.

To summarize, begin by taking inventory of the emotional "moments of truth" occurring every day throughout the continuum of care. Next, prioritize based on your patients and their families the most critical moments for making an emotional connection. Then, align (design) your people and processes to "always" make those emotional connections, thereby creating experiences and stories that are--according to Robinson--"deeply personally gratifying and that promote health."

Ultimately, isn't that the most basic, fundamental purpose of improving the patient experience?

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-designedpatient- and family-centered volunteer program and front-line First & Last Impression initiatives. Follow Doug@DougDellaPietra on Twitter.