Atrius Health teaches medical practice employees about empathy, improves patient satisfaction scores

A mature woman physician consulting with a patient in the doctor's office.
Training employees to show greater empathy for patients takes times and resources but is worthwhile, Atrius Health leaders say. (Getty/Ridofranz)

The dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

In medical practices, it serves two purposes. It lets patients know their providers care about them, and it lets employees know their supervisors, co-workers and leaders care about them as human beings.

That’s why Atrius Health, which provides care for 740,000 patients and has 5,500 medical practice employees throughout the greater Boston area, decided to implement empathy forums, writes its president and CEO Steven Strongwater, M.D., Laurel Martino, its director of organizational development and learning, and William Boyd, M.D., its associate chief medical officer, in NEJM Catalyst.

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“Most patients remember how their clinicians made them feel when they went to the doctor’s office for a visit,” the Atrius officials wrote. According to one 2016 study, the perception that their physicians were empathetic was the biggest factor in patients' satisfaction.

The emphasis on the need for patient-centered care and empathy has led many providers to train healthcare professionals in interpersonal skills. Doctors can improve communication with patients with simple steps, such as smiling when they greet patients and maintaining eye contact.

In 2016, Atrius conducted 251 empathy forums across its organization, training more than 4,000 medical practice employees or 92.3% of staff in 90-minute sessions with the goal of integrating empathy into their daily work. The result was an increase in patient survey scores for “sensitivity to patients’ needs.”

To teach employees to practice empathy, the authors recommend leaders co-facilitate the sessions along with an organizational development and learning or human resources consultant. Sessions should be interactive and engaging for employees.

Atrius provided a three-hour train-the-trainer session for practice leaders where they practiced for the forums using a script, videos and other resources and materials. Two weeks before the forums, participants received pre-work to introduce them to the session. The sessions themselves included a presentation about communication skills and a video with Atrius' own doctors and employees. The organization follows up with coaching and feedback to employees during one-on-one meetings, team meetings and huddles.

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