One Question That Changed Our Organization

How do you teach empathy?

doctor comforting female patient

It happened eight years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had been invited to Harvard Business School to discuss a case study on Cleveland Clinic. After a very positive first session, a student at the second session raised her hand and said, “Dr. Cosgrove, my father needed mitral valve surgery. We knew about Cleveland Clinic and the excellent results you had. But we decided not to go because we heard you had no empathy there. We went to another hospital instead.”

The student then asked me: “Dr. Cosgrove, do you teach empathy at Cleveland Clinic?”

Ten days later, I was in Saudi Arabia for the opening of a hospital. The president of the hospital stood up and said, “This hospital is dedicated to the body, the spirit and the soul of the patient.”

So I had a long hard look in the mirror, and I realized what had happened. When I started cardiac surgery, about 20 percent of the patients would die. Now, the mortality rate is 1 percent or less.

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All I thought about was heart surgery all day, every day. I didn’t think about the entire society, the whole patient or how an organization works. I spent my life in the pursuit of technical excellence so people wouldn’t die on the operating table. I didn’t spend much time looking after patients as whole individuals. So I said, “I’m going to do something about this.”

That’s when we established the Cleveland Clinic Office of Patient Experience and appointed our first Chief Experience Officer.

We went from a doctor-centered organization to a patient-centered structure with 26 institutes and support centers.

We assigned all 43,000 caregivers to Cleveland Clinic Experience sessions — a boot camp for empathy, engagement and service behaviors.

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I’m proud to say that since that day at Harvard Business School, we’ve launched programs that have boosted our patient satisfaction scores considerably. And we’ve linked patient experience with quality and safety initiatives to make powerful changes across the institution.

Most importantly, I can look our patients and their families in the eye and say, “Yes we do teach empathy. We’ve made it part of our culture.” There’s still a long way to go. But we’re on our way.

Delos M. Cosgrove, MD LinkedIn Profile

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Delos M. Cosgrove, MD

Delos M. Cosgrove, MD, is President and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, where he presides over a $6.7 billion healthcare system.
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  • Cari

    I really wish Drs would learn about dysautonomia and POTS… This is absolutely horrible, and the Drs around here either don’t know about it, don’t know how to treat it, or just don’t care.

    • anupsoans

      This is horrible is a statement that lacks kindness and full of judgment…lack of empathy

      • Cari

        “this is horrible” is referring to what its like having dysautonomia and POTS. I don’t judge, am kind, and very empathetic towards others. I was hoping, after reading this article that my comment might help find an advocate for these dysfunctions, meaning you. You are at Cleveland Hospital which is one of the top three hospitals that deal with autonomic dysfunction and it’s so very hard trying to explain dysautonomia and POTS to doctors, and trying to get them to understand, believe, and want to help. I guess my statement upset you, considering your response lacked kindness and empathy, for that I apologize..

      • Cari

        I’m sorry, I just realized you are not the person that wrote this, but someone that just wanted to let me know how rude my comment was, thank you for that, and I hope you never have any issues with your health or need help.

  • LSpark

    What metrics do you use to innovate in this area? Surveys are often unreliable.

  • Tracey Haynes

    I believe you cant teach a person empathy. They either have it or don’t. But what can be taught is how to be more sensitive and aware of the patients feelings and emotions.

  • anupsoans

    Great article and great effort.

  • Alice

    My husband just had heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic in November. Our experience was wonderful. Never have I seen patients and their families treated better. I tell anyone who has any health issue, try Cleveland first. They make us feel like family!