Technology and a Culture of Listening in Healthcare

A sincere demonstration or expression of compassion is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of a patient-facing healthcare worker. There is an art to empathy. Patients bring emotional baggage to every interaction, and successful healthcare workers know how to unpack that baggage with the patient’s welfare at the forefront of every act and word.

It begins with communication – specifically, with listening to and understanding the health story of the patient. All the medical knowledge, skill and training in the world is useless unless a healthcare worker fully grasps the challenge before him or her, and that means knowing the history.

Author Atul Gawande illustrated the point succinctly in a volume entitled, A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, published in 2007:

“It is unsettling how little it takes to defeat success in medicine. You come as a professional equipped with expertise and technology. You do not imagine that a mere matter of etiquette could foil you. … In this work against sickness, we begin not with genetic or cellular interactions but with human ones.”

While compassionate patient interaction begins with interpersonal skills, effective interpersonal communication relies on accurate information. This is where improved technology comes into play.

The use of advanced resources to improve patient communication was a major theme at the 2017 convention of the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). The point was made repeatedly that well-conceived electronic medical records can contribute significantly to the development of a culture of listening in healthcare.

Why Listening Matters

The question might arise: How much does patient engagement matter? After all, if a healthcare worker can diagnose and treat a patient based on empirical data and lab results, why would a compassionate and empathetic bedside manner be necessary?

The answer is obvious, and has been taught to physicians since the days of Hippocrates. Many studies have shown that patient trust and peace of mind developed through compassionate patient engagement are vital components of successful medical outcomes.

In short, the more a patient feels at ease with the healer, the more likely he or she is to be healed.

Yet, it is not only about peace of mind. There are practical reasons for healthcare workers to cultivate a culture of listening in a hospital or clinical setting.

This concept was explored in-depth in 2016 by the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst Insights Council, which conducted a survey on the theme of patient engagement. The survey defined patient engagement in terms of the desire of modern patients to participate in their own healthcare, including factors such as:

  • Interest in taking an active role in treatment decisions
  • Taking responsibility for adhering to care plans
  • Taking an active role in overall personal health improvement

The survey found that 71% of the clinicians and medical professionals surveyed considered fewer than half of their patients to be “highly engaged.” In fact, 42% of those surveyed considered fewer than 75% of their patients to be “highly engaged.”

That said, the survey results supported the idea that patient engagement is an important part of treatment and care. It found that the three most-effective patient engagement initiatives are:

  • Physicians, nurses and other clinicians spending more time with patients
  • Patients sharing in decision making
  • Easier patient access for relevant services

Of these, an argument can be made that the most difficult and costly would be enforcing more time spent with patients. The time constraints on healthcare workers are well-documented, as are the shortage of nurses and other caregivers across the United States.

However, the need for more time can be mitigated if the quality of the time spent is improved by a greater ability to communicate effectively. This is where technology can be an enormous asset.

Technology and Patient Engagement

A recent survey conducted by CDW Healthcare found that digital tools and communication outreach with chronic patients increased engagement 70% of the time. According to the survey of 200 patients and 200 physicians, digital communication methods such as patient portals and health applications on mobile devices led to 69% of respondents speaking with their physicians more frequently.

One key finding supported the notion that technology can improve the lines of communication between patients and healthcare workers by adding depth to the information available: 64% of patients said they would be willing to submit personal healthcare information to their provider online if it meant there was a chance for a better outcome.

The 2017 HIMSS convention in Orlando, Fla., provided several guidelines for how organizations should approach the implementation of technology to improve patient engagement. These included:

  • Focus on the thought that what is good for the consumer is good for the patient.
  • Put patient needs first.
  • Make the experience pleasing.

HIMSS presenter Jennifer Esposito, general manager of health and life sciences for Intel Corporation, outlined a number of ways healthcare organizations can use technology to help with patient engagement.

“For the inpatient setting, this could involve enabling collaboration at bedside between providers and patients using monitors that display treatment options, or that provide education about a patient’s disease or condition,” Esposito explained in a HIMSS Q&A. “For patients at home, technology such as wearables or other sensors can support patients in tracking progress and send data to providers who can intervene, if necessary.”

Esposito also explained how data analytics, cloud-based platforms and advances in computer capabilities are being used to better understand patient preferences and help patients become more involved in decision making.

These and other technological advances rely on patient-reported outcomes (PROs), Esposito said. PROs take into account social factors, cultural factors and family history, patient-specific factors that have an enormous influence on health outcomes and the potential effectiveness of a treatment plan.

While computer-based patient portals are an important conversation driver between patients and healthcare workers, a number of other potentially effective technologies surfaced at the HIMSS conference:

  • Customer relationship management software to provide instant information remotely
  • Connected monitoring devices for remotely sharing real-time health data
  • Mobile messaging systems to remind patients about appointments and treatment

The trend toward increased technology enabling more-effective patient engagement is growing. According to the CDW Healthcare survey, 70% of respondents reported increased engagement during the preceding two years, and 74% of patients joined a patient portal – a 30% increase from 2016.


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