How Social Network Science can Foster Empathy among MD’s [Interview][Transcript]

Dr_Thomas_Lee_Empathy_HealthcareGuest: Dr. Thomas Lee
Presenter: Neal Howard
Guest Bio: Dr. Thomas Lee joined Press Ganey as Chief Medical Officer in 2013, bringing more than three decades of experience in health care performance improvement as a practicing physician, a leader in provider organizations, researcher and health policy expert. As CMO, Tom is responsible for developing clinical and operational strategies to help providers across the nation measure and improve the patient experience, with an overarching goal of reducing the suffering of patients as they undergo care, and improving the value of that care. In addition to his role with Press Ganey, Tom, an internist and cardiologist, continues to practice primary care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Segment overview: Dr. Thomas Lee, Chief Medical Officer of Press-Ganey, a company that surveys hospital patients, discusses his very recent book, AN EPIDEMIC OF EMPATHY IN HEALTHCARE: How to Deliver Compassionate, Connected Patient Care That Creates a Competitive Advantage (McGraw-Hill; November, 2015), and his work in improving the patient experience.


Health Professional Radio – Empathy Healthcare

Neal Howard: Hello and welcome Health Professional Radio, I’m your host Neal Howard. We’re in studio today talking with Dr. Thomas Lee, Chief Medical Officer of Press Ganey. Press Ganey is a company that surveys hospital patients in addition to being Chief Medical Officer. He’s also an author, recently published “An Epidemic of Empathy in Healthcare: How to Deliver Compassionate, Connected Patient Care That Creates a Competitive Advantage” McGraw-Hill just this past November as a matter of fact. Dr. Lee frequently lectures on the patient experience and strategies for improving the value of healthcare. Welcome to the Health Professional Radio today Dr. Lee.

Dr. Thomas Lee: Thanks for having me.

N: Thank you. You’re an author of An Epidemic of Empathy in Healthcare, is this your first work?

L: I know I’ve written a lot over the years both a few books and about the healthcare system and about its evolution, but also a lot of articles and then on the Journal of Medicine where I’ve been an editor.

N: Now you’ve been working to improve the patient experience not so much as it relates to the actual hands on care in the prescription meds or the treatment or the therapy, but deeper than that the emotional connection – the empathy. Physicians maybe putting themselves into the shoes or the situation of a patient as you said in the last segment, when you were here who is perhaps old, frail and or maybe dying. How important is that today as opposed to before or are we just now recognizing the importance of making that emotional empathetic connection with patients?

L: I think that it’s a very special time and a special opportunity to ask that question about what are we trying to do in healthcare? That question really hasn’t been raised in the past because we always kind of tell “We do good things, we’re good people. The more we do, the better.” But what’s changed we have this aging population for the first time in history becoming frail is a routine experience. And we also have economic pressures in healthcare but the key thing is beyond those two factors, is that healthcare has become so complicated – it’s often chaotic for patients. So when you think about those forces – the aging of the population, your economic pressures and then just the complexity of modern sophisticated medicine, you have to step back and say “What are we trying to do?” And what you think about what your trying to do, yeah we want to help people lived this long as they can, but we can’t make people live forever. Yeah we want this people healthy as they can be, but there lots of people we can’t make completely healthy. So one of my friends put it in this book, at the end of the day what their family wants is “peace of mind” that things are as good as they can be, given the card of that they’ve been dealt. And I think when we think about it, if doctors and nurses aren’t giving patient peace of mind that things always good as they can be, then the work’s not done. So I think that I am not really that interested in writing books about getting people to smile and have anti-lobbyist or something like that. I’m interested what does it take to give people peace of mind, that things as they can be. I think the technical stuff is important in healthcare, but I think that establishing those connections with the patient so they know that someone is taking care of them – those things are critical.

N: Now in your book An Epidemic of Empathy in Healthcare, do you address the culture from which our future and present physicians are emerging from? I mean it’s not a culture of empathy and sympathy when you look at the news and read the paper.

L: And it’s ironic because if the people go in healthcare today they’re good people, but there’s just so much to know and so much to do. I actually think that people in healthcare we take the empathy part for granted and we focus on the technical aspect of care. Patients, they assume that the technical stuff is going to be alright and they’re one ring to anyone actually care about them. And the truth is we need both, it’s not a choice between technical excellence and being emphatic – you have to do both. And that’s what excellent care really is, technically excellent and emphatic.

N: You see that your using social networking techniques in order to spread a spirit, for lack of a better term a spirit of empathy among healthcare professionals talking about empathy going viral?

L: Basically that would be a lovely thing to happen wouldn’t it? First I think you can’t legislate empathy, you can’t give financial incentive for empathy, that’s not just going to work. What we need is you needed to be a social norm, it can’t be a financial issue. It’s got to be ‘a look in the mirror issue’, where like you’re ashamed of yourself or you would feel embarrassed in front of your friends and colleagues if you weren’t delivering care a certain way. So when I say social network science, I’m talking about creating a norm in a community of clinicians, of healthcare professionals. You’re not doing a good job if you’re not mustering the energy to look patients in the eye and think about what’s important to this human being. How are they suffering and then doing what you can to relieve that suffering. That’s the kind of thing just like picking up liter in the street, being physically fit, these are social values that spread in the same ways as an infectious disease from person to person as norms develop.

N: In your experience how does a physician, a specialist, a nurse and EMT convey the message that they’re being empathetic as opposed to being sympathetic especially when we’re talking about the aging population? Many of folks my age and older they don’t want to be felt like your feeling sorry for them, they don’t want mercy treatment or a sympathy pat on the shoulder. Is there a difference between sympathy and empathy?

N: Neal there is a very important difference and they’re certainly related, but sympathy is when you just feel bad because some bad things are happening to someone else. There is an earth quake in so far away country, you don’t know anyone there but you see pictures on the news and you go “Oh that’s too bad.” And as you see a patient who’s got something a miserable situation you go “That’s too bad.” But empathy is actually something different where you understand what’s important to the patient and you convey that you understand it and that you’re going to do what you can to try to help relieve what’s causing their suffering. It’s much more of an action oriented set of things to do. Patients don’t really want us to feel their pain, they want us to relieve their pain. So empathy is okay, I get it. “This is a really tough situation, let’s see what we can do to help you.”

N: What was it that prompted you to focus on this aspect of healthcare in the first place?

L: Well I’m taking care of patients, primary care patients mainly. I’m a cardiologist as well and I see my patients have always had fears of their disease, fears of their treatment, but today there is a third fear that’s new to our era which is the fear that we don’t have our act together. They’re afraid that no one is paying attention to their big picture. They don’t know that whether we’re talking to each other, and seeing that fear that patients have that no one is thinking about their big picture, that’s like a crisis. I also think it’s an opportunity for organizations that can make emphatic care the norm and coordinated care the norm. Those organizations are gonna be rewarded with market share, more patients and they deserve to be rewarded.

N: Now as we wrap up, what can we as patients do to help you as clinicians create this environment when you have so many factors that go against your desire to be emphatic?

L: Well I think that my real target in this book was more healthcare providers and patients. And patients are heterogeneous, there is no one patient voice, there is no one way patients are or one way the patient should be. Ultimately the relationship between a doctor and a patient is more like dancing as an interaction and that’s what makes medicine so great. No two patients are exactly alike, but I knew things that both patients and doctors should approach the interaction to healthcare that way that it’s a relationship between human beings and be paying attention to each other. I do think patients should be active voices, they should get involved with their hospitals and doctor groups beyond committees, just having any patient in the room make providers better.

N: And where can our listeners get more information about Press Ganey and your book?

L: Well there is certainly the Press Ganey website is certainly is a good place to go to learn more about Press Ganey. We are trying to make healthcare better, trying to help providers relieve patient suffering. The book, you can google that and look on Amazon and other sites and it’s certainly in a lot of book stores as well.

N: Great. You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio, I am your host Neal Howard. We’ve been in studio talking with Dr. Thomas Lee Chief Medical Officer of Press Ganey here discussing his latest book An Epidemic of Empathy in Healthcare: How to Deliver Compassionate, Connected Patient Care That Creates Competitive Advantage, published by McGraw-Hill. We’ve been here discussing how social networking science is working to help spread empathy to caregivers using techniques based on data and scientific studies. It’s been great having you here with us today Dr. Lee.

N: Thank you so much.

N: Transcript and audio of this program are available at and also at and you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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