Is It Enough to Mean Well? The Importance of Empathy

March 3, 2016


A few weeks ago, I was helping to lead a client message training session for an amazing group of female philanthropists. These women are leading incredible global health initiatives, from addressing gender-based violence in Honduras and Trinidad to transforming sanitation in Vietnam and detecting and treating cervical cancer in India. As we were discussing their work around the world, one of the women emphasized the importance of empathy in philanthropy, making the point that it is “only from a place of deep empathy and connection, that you can have real impact.”

I don’t know why, but I was surprised. Perhaps I was influenced by the perceived halo of good intent. We mean well, so what we are doing must be helpful. But as the philanthropists in our message training session affirmed, it’s often not the case.

Upon reflection, the same seems true in healthcare. Most of us mean well. So why, then, do we so often fail those we’re trying to serve? In his thoughtful and inspiring TED talk, “What really matters at the end of life?” BJ Miller offers an answer: “because healthcare was designed with diseases, not people, at its center. Which is to say, of course, it was badly designed.”

To be sure, there have been numerous efforts and attempts to try to address this issue in the healthcare system. In an article about health care delivery design, Kay Jamieson offers that “empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.” Design methods create opportunities to ask the right questions.

And, although the word empathy isn’t specifically mentioned in its mission, in some ways the concept is the impetus behind The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), an organization authorized by Congress in 2010 for the express purpose of funding research projects designed to improve patient care and outcomes through patient-centered comparative clinical effectiveness research, or CER. As its website notes, “We’re not the first organization to fund CER to improve outcomes in conditions that affect large numbers of people or pose a substantial burden on society. Nor are we the first funder to pay attention to the views of patients and other healthcare stakeholders in our work. But we are the largest single research funder that has CER as its main focus, and we incorporate patients and other stakeholders throughout the process more consistently and intensively than others have before.”

The idea of course builds on the foundational concept when considering the design of any initiative: Know your audience. But it takes it to another level. We must truly understand who we’re trying to reach, appreciate their perspectives, care about their experiences and, perhaps most importantly, involve them in the solution. As Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “Whatever you do for me but without me, you do against me.”

So, how can we apply empathy to healthcare communications? I would argue that we must start with truly understanding and involving our target audiences at all stages of the process—whether they’re patients, physicians or other members of the healthcare eco-system. How can we better gain insights into their experiences, emotions, challenges and hopes? And how can these insights help us shape our messages, design our campaigns and measure our impact?

To put it simply, we must ask.