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.”

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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.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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

Delos M. Cosgrove, MD

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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