Cannes Lions Health: Empathy Is the Key to Life-Changing Creativity

June 18, 2016


Earlier today at Cannes Lions Health, Genentech (a FleishmanHillard client) shared the powerful findings of their Lung Cancer Project, a study which sought to identify and understand unconscious bias. They found that an astonishing three out of four people had negative perceptions about lung cancer, which likely contributes to the high percentage of people diagnosed with the disease who don’t get treatment.

In the same session, Alan Blassberg, director of the documentary, “Pink & Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer,” shared some of the challenges he faced when getting diagnosed with a genetic mutation that causes breast cancer – a “woman’s disease.” From the forms that asked him about whether he’d ever been pregnant to the pink robes in the waiting room, every aspect of his experience only served to alienate and emasculate him.

So what do these two examples have in common? At the very least, I believe they shine a light on what can happen when empathy is missing from our healthcare consciousness. The good news is that there are smart people working on how to make all of us—providers, caregivers, and patients—more empathetic.

A program piloted at Massachusetts General Hospital and now available through an online learning portal uses a neuroscience framework to train physicians to be more empathetic. Building skills such as facial expression decoding, managing difficult medical conversations, and seeing the vulnerable person behind the behavior, physicians have been shown as measured by patient perceptions (in a randomized, single-blind clinical study, no less) to improve their ability to empathize.

We can agree that empathy is vitally important for the patient experience. But it’s equally important in our communications work as well. As Dave Sonderman from GSW pointed out in the session, “The Science & Art of Empathy,” because health is such a personal experience, we have to work particularly hard in healthcare to understand each other. But it’s vitally important that we do.

For at its heart, creativity is really about understanding our audiences. And whether we call it empathy, or insights, or human truths, without them, we can’t hope to understand the people’s choices and decisions. And without understanding, there is no hope for connection or meaningful behavior change.

If we are to aspire to this year’s Cannes Lions Health theme of work that delivers on the promise of “life-changing creativity,” we must start with empathy.