physical therapy empathy

The Only Physical Therapy Outcome that Matters

Last night I attended The Quantified Patient, which is an event (that represents a larger movement in the world of health tech) that’s focused on redefining healthcare through the use of self-tracking systems, behavior change psychology, and human analytics.  In essence, it was a room filled with self-proclaimed geeks; their wrists adorned with Fitbits and Jawbones, office walls adorned with diplomas from MIT or Harvard, and backpacks filled with innovative technology.

Some meetups like this have a propensity to spin out of control, quickly morphing into a self-congratulatory conversation where everyone shares a common opinion, with little progress made.  The Quantified Patient was not one of those meetings.

Rather than having a common opinion, it seemed the room had a common goal: determine how can we improve population health and figure out if and where technology fits into the equation.

A prevailing theme echoed over and over by one of the signature speakers, Alexandra Drane of Eliza, was:

“Whatever the topic, conversation is more meaningful when you speak with people on their own terms– acknowledging their attitudes and behaviors around their health; understanding their motivations and concerns.”

Certainly, I can summarize a lot of what she is saying with one word: EMPATHY.  But, she had a more actionable and concrete message than “Be empathic”.  She advocates being empathic in order to understand your patients, and to inform every subsequent interaction you have with the patient based upon those understandings.

I think this is a very important distinction to make.  Empathy is being able to understand a person’s condition from their perspective.  Once we have this understanding (because of our ability to be empathic) we can then use the understandings to:

–          Speak in a way that the individual understands

–          Address their specific barriers

–          And ultimately, solve the problems they want solved

If we don’t use empathy to inform the way we educate and converse with our patients, we’re fighting a losing battle.  Even if our sole motivation is to improve someone’s health, unless we can effectively align what we are saying with their values, barriers, and problems, we won’t reach the outcome we’re striving for because we won’t get the patient buy-in that’s necessary for success.

For example, if you don’t take the time to understand a patient’s perspective, you might focus your education and conversation solely on how you’re going to improve her chronic back pain, without realizing that she came into her initial evaluation with reservations about being able to put in the time commitment because she’s the sole caregiver for her aging mother, has a high-stress full time job, and is resigned to the fact that she’s probably going to just have to deal with her pain.

I can promise you that if you don’t understand and address her specific barriers you’re going to lose her, first mentally and soon after physically when she stops coming to her appointments.

But, if you speak in a way the patient can relate to, address her specific barriers, and solve a real life problem that she wants solved, you will attain the buy-in that you need to reach the optimal clinical outcome1.

In the end, clinical outcomes are determined by objective measurements and functional outcome scales, but real life problems aren’t. If you operate with the mantra of providing value to the patient within their frame of reference rather than your own, you will achieve better clinical outcomes, build meaningful and long lasting patient relationships, and (most importantly) help people in a real and significant way.

Note

  1. For some reason, a portion of the physical therapy community shudders when others use business-specific terms such as marketing, branding, and sales in the context of PT.  But, if you take the second approach in the above example by addressing this particular patient’s direct barriers and communicating with her to help solve a very real problem, you are absolutely, unequivocably, one-hundred-percent marketing your services.  You are laying out the value of the product/service that you provide in the context of the patient’s life.  Marketing & selling is communicating your value to your patients and getting them to buy into that value… there is nothing inherently dirty or wrong about this process.  If it helps, every time you read ‘Marketing’, replace it mentally with ‘Communicate Value’.  The future of our profession hinges on our ability to articulate what we do in a clear, concise manner in order to communicate our value and attain full patient buy-in.