September 23, 2021

Patient-centered Interviewing – A Prescription for Business Leaders

Patient-centered Interviewing - A Prescription for Business LeadersIt was gratifying to hear so much discussion about the role of empathy at the ATD2021 conference this year. Empathy has been a hot topic in medicine for over ten years and correlates with increased trust by patients, decreased patient anxiety, and improved health outcomes. Business leaders looking for new ways to display empathy and improve colleague engagement may want to explore a technique we teach in medicine called patient-centered interviewing (PCI).

Traditional medical education teaches clinicians to ask patients focused questions about their symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. Patients may experience this approach as an interrogation, creating feelings of vulnerability. Additionally, the information gathered is often skewed towards physical manifestations. Therefore, clinicians are more likely to miss critical psycho-social factors that influence the disease, the clinical course, or how the patient is experiencing symptoms.

In patient-centered interviewing, clinicians learn to ask open-ended questions, inviting patients to tell the story of their disease. This shift places patients in control of their disease narrative as the clinicians’ role changes from interrogators to facilitators. This switch helps decrease a patient’s sense of vulnerability, empowering them to include information about the disease and symptoms and its impact on their overall quality of life. Clinicians often gain valuable information about how psycho-social factors contribute to a patient’s symptoms and disease state. The benefits of this approach are clear: research shows that patient satisfaction, understanding, and adherence to prescribed treatments are measurably improved using PCI techniques.

While employees are not patients and managers are not clinicians, the manager-employee relationship shares much in common with the clinician-patient relationship. In both instances, a difference in power balances often leads to feelings of vulnerability. This vulnerability may cause either patients or employees to withhold valuable information from physicians or managers. Using PCI techniques, displaying empathy can decrease these feelings of vulnerability among employees, thereby building trust and benefitting the employee experience. Increased employee satisfaction, retention, and engagement are a natural result. 

3 Techniques for Increasing Empathy, Adapted from Patient-centered Interviewing:

  • It’s about them, not about you! Your thoughts, feelings, and reactions are less important at this moment. Showing empathy means that you are 100% present on their behalf. This is not the time, no matter how tempting it may be, to share your own experiences or impressions.
  • Ask open-ended questions like, “What’s going on?” “Tell me more about that?” “Help me understand?” are all useful to elicit additional information and will make your employees feel heard.
  • Silence is golden – Allow for pauses in conversation. People are more likely to contribute additional information to the discussion when you allow space for it.

Clinicians have learned that PCI is the right medicine to increase empathy in healthcare. The techniques help us to facilitate, not interrogate. This shift allows us to take the best possible care of our patients. Business leaders can also use these tips above to increase empathy. It’s a powerful prescription for team success.