The Empathy Mindset in Healthcare – Improving Safety, Patient Experience, and Outcomes

Delivering on the overarching mission of ensuring positive health outcomes for patients often equates to building proper systems and protocols that minimize the rate of medical errors and promote both patient and practitioner safety. The challenge with this approach is that organizations often fail to deliver on critical topline goals such as improving organizational safety and health outcomes unless they also address the underlying mindset driving the behaviors in the workforce.

Organizations that intentionally manage culture – the way people think and act – see dramatic improvements in patient experience, safety, and health outcomes. The question is, what is the right mindset and what can leaders do to impact the way people think in order to achieve new results?

The empathy mindset

Empathy, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another….”  In healthcare, the results of empathy often manifest as increased levels of trust, emotional connection, care, and sense of responsibility for the other’s wellbeing—a mindset that could combat the negative beliefs that often lead to increased medical error.


Cultivating empathy in healthcare shifts the power dynamics around reporting and speaking up on a patient’s behalf. Empathy invites staff and clinicians to view a situation from the patient’s perspective and connect to their emotional experience. Harboring a fear of retribution, not having a voice, and feeling that physicians have all the power are all internalized experiences. Higher awareness of and sensitivity to the patient experience diminishes these negative beliefs and provides the courage necessary to improve the accuracy of reporting and curb rates of error.

Consider a nurse practitioner who is invested in a patient’s experience instead of focusing on his or her job security and position in the organizational hierarchy. Someone with this empathy mindset may find the courage to approach a superior about a potential error that could put the patient at risk.

This empathy mindset manifests in other directions, too. When a nurse exhibits empathy for a superior, he or she might view physicians simultaneously as humans who are as prone to error as anyone else and as caregivers who are ultimately committed to creating positive patient outcomes. Believing that the physician values feedback as an opportunity to improve quality of care gives the nurse the confidence to speak up to a superior instead of feeling intimidated by rank or authority.

What it takes to nurture higher levels of empathy

The Results Pyramid describes that an individual’s personal experiences inform their beliefs. In turn, beliefs drive actions, which themselves lead to results. With this in mind, leaders who focus on creating the right experiences in their organization have better success shaping a thriving, healthy culture that delivers desired results.

In order to cement empathy as a core cultural belief shared by all members of an organization, leaders must intentionally shape employee experiences that promote the formation of this belief.

As an example, healthcare leaders could conduct a set of group workshops and seminars where participants watch documentary films on the power of empathy, share success stories of patients and coworkers whose lives they have positively impacted through empathy, and practice empathy-centered language and actions. By doing these activities as a team, employees develop a shared mindset that recognizes empathy as a valuable belief to hold. Empathy makes them better care providers.

When employees share experiences that teach and champion empathy, they form the belief that empathy is an integral part of a thriving, safety-focused workplace. In turn, they are more likely to practice empathy in their daily work with both patients and colleagues, thereby driving improved safety, reduced rates of medical error, and better health outcomes.

Creating success stories 

In 2008, The New York Times profiled the empathy initiative undertaken by Saint Barnabas Medical Center, in which practitioners read and discussed poetry, short stories and essays with patients each day.

What was dubbed “narrative medicine,” and similar treatment programs with a focus on establishing a greater sense of patient-practitioner empathy, enabled healthcare practitioners to think from other points of view and connect more deeply with patients.

As Dr. Rita Charon of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons explains, “You want people to be able to leave their own individual place and ask what this might be like for the child dying of leukemia, the mother of that child, the family, the hospital roommate.”

The Times reported that, by using storytelling as a conduit for emotional connection, “literary training can strengthen and support the compassionate instincts of doctors.” In turn, compassionate instincts lead to more attentive, competent care that improves patient outcomes: a year after beginning the program, Saint Barnabas had achieved “significant improvements in patient evaluations of residents and patients’ health and quality of life, from hospital admission to discharge.”

The business case for empathy

The connection tying empathic practice to better patient and business outcomes is far from hypothetical. Empathetic healthcare providers achieve tangible outcome improvements that increase the profitability of their employer organization. Research has revealed that greater levels of empathy and compassion are statistically linked to increased treatment adherence, reduced rates of malpractice, fewer mistakes, and improved patient satisfaction.

Exhibiting empathy towards patients creates a high level of patient-practitioner trust and strengthens the overall patient experience. When a practitioner expresses their understanding of a patient’s emotional experience, they establish a rapport that puts the patient at ease. According to research conducted by The Journal of Hand Surgery, 65% of patient satisfaction is attributed to physician empathy.

Studies of various conditions have shown that patients treated by highly empathetic medical professionals demonstrated less severe symptoms of illness, quicker recovery from health problems, increased alleviation of depression, fewer complications, or better quality of life.  According to a study published by the British Journal of General Practice, “empathy lowers patients’ anxiety and distress and delivers significantly better clinical outcomes.”

As patients experience increased health improvements in environments with higher levels of empathy, organizations benefit, too. Improved patient outcomes translate to higher revenue because they decrease organizational costs incurred by damage claims, hospital-acquired infections, and treatment complications.

Further, positive patient experiences often lead to valuable referrals and increased hospital foot traffic. Positive reviews have a powerful impact on an organization’s reputation and, consequently, total revenue. Nearly 80% of patients report that they would refer others to empathetic physicians they have seen, which underscores how each success story has the potential to grow a hospital’s client base and prominence in a competitive healthcare landscape.

As a result, creating an organizational culture that promotes increased empathy at every step in the care process is a critical element in achieving improved safety and health results.

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