The Perfect Patient and Family Experience: A Lesson in Humanity

Added on Nov 3, 2016

By Dr. James Merlino, President and CMO, Strategic Consulting Division


We learn how to change the care experience through the eyes of our patients and families. Sometimes, if we’re lucky enough, we learn it directly from their hearts, and when that happens, it touches us deeply. The bedside scene recounted by Boston writer Peter DeMarco in a letter published by the New York Times had that effect.

Though born of tragedy—the sudden and unexpected death of DeMarco’s young wife—the experience he described was as caring, compassionate and patient-centered as an experience could be.

In the letter, which was addressed to the “doctors, nurses, respiratory specialists, social workers, even cleaning staff members” at CHA Cambridge Hospital who cared for his wife, DeMarco explained that, without exception, every person who tended to her as she lay unconscious did so with the utmost professionalism, kindness and dignity. “When she needed shots, you apologized that it was going to hurt a little, whether or not she could hear,” he wrote. “You spread a blanket, not only when her body temperature needed regulating, but also when the room was just a little cold, and you thought she’d sleep more comfortably that way.”

The care, empathy and compassion of the entire caregiving team extended beyond the patient to include the entire family in its comforting embrace, allowing every member the time, space and comfort to say goodbye to their friend, daughter, wife. 

At every turn, the care team went above and beyond their professional duties and responsibilities to create an environment that supported the family’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and by so doing touched their hearts in a deep and lasting way. Of their extraordinary efforts to provide a private, “natural” space for husband and wife’s final moments, DeMarco wrote, “I will remember that last hour together for the rest of my life.”

From an organizational perspective, the story behind this story is one of compassion and empathy. The caregivers at HCA Cambridge Hospital all had a job to do, but they also had a choice. They could work within the bounds of their professional capacities and distance themselves emotionally from patients and families, or they could relate to the personal, human dimension of their work. That they consistently and continuously chose the latter speaks volumes about their commitment to optimizing the care experience of the patients and families they serve.

Additionally, to the degree that the practices and values of individuals within an organization reflect those of the organization as a whole, the actions of the doctors, nurses, and others who rallied around this patient and her family suggest that the culture in which they work places a high priority on delivering compassionate care. And culture most definitely matters. When caregivers feel supported in the mission to deliver compassionate care, they, in addition to the patients and families they care for, benefit from the deeper human connection. It validates their humanity and connects them with the healing mission of their life’s work.

The empathy message resonated loud and clear as Press Ganey kick​ed off its 2016 National Client Conference, during which thousands of health care executives and providers from across the country heard and shared new ideas, specific tactics and innovative strategies for improving the safety, quality and experience of health care for patients, families and providers.

They also celebrated what may be the least publicized but most appreciated aspect of the patient and family experience—human kindness—as Lloyd H. Dean, president and CEO of San Francisco-based Dignity Health received the 2016 Press Ganey Innovator of the Year Award for his role in leading ​his organization's national effort to engage and inspire people to promote acts of human kindness within the health care industry and beyond.

"What's missing in the public discourse about health care is the fact that while medicine has the power to cure, it's humanity that holds the power to heal," Dean said. "The time has come to change not only the discourse, but the lens through which policies and decisions about health care are being made."

Only by changing how we think about kindness at the bedside, in the workplace and in our community, Dean said, can we deliver world-class care to our patients, and the utmost trust and comfort to their families and loved ones. 

Proof of this can be read in every line of a single heartfelt thank you expressed by a grieving husband. The kindness of his wife’s caregivers, he wrote, “was a gift beyond gifts.”

Read more from Press Ganey's Dr. Jim Merlino.