How Millennials Can Use Empathy To Drive Innovation In Health Care

10/20/2016 10:22 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2017
The 2016-2017 Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellows at a site visit in Nemours/Dupont Hospital; from left: HFA f
The 2016-2017 Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellows at a site visit in Nemours/Dupont Hospital; from left: HFA fellows Katia Vlasova, Michael Mezher, King John Pascual, and Stephanie Guang with Dr. Paul Rosen of Nemours

Paul Rosen, MD, MPH, MMM, can teach us all something about empathy—especially current and aspiring healthcare innovators. He is a pediatric rheumatologist and Clinical Director of Service and Operational Excellence at Nemours Children’s Health System in Wilmington, Delaware. He is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Jefferson University. A TEDx speaker, Dr. Rosen was named “One of the First 100 Innovators” for his work on patient-physician communication by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

I recently met Dr. Rosen through my participation in the Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellowship, a yearlong innovation fellowship for young professionals based at the MedStar Institute for Innovation in Washington, D.C. The fellowship empowers me and my colleagues to collaborate with a variety of leaders who specialize in health, design, and entrepreneurship. In this interview, Dr. Rosen discusses empathy and how it can catalyze healthcare innovation in the 21st century. This is the first in a series of posts intended to inspire and inform fellow Millennial innovators.

King John Pascual (KP): Let’s start off with the elemental question: Why should physicians care about empathy?

Dr. Paul Rosen (PR): We are in a very privileged position in health care where people come to us either sick themselves or with their sick loved ones. Physicians are given the opportunity to offer peace of mind, relieve suffering, and restore someone back to good health. I believe that physicians should care about empathy so that they can understand the pain, anxiety, fear, and stress patients typically endure. Doing so will aid in the design of better patient experiences that not only improve healthcare outcomes but can also save time, money, and hospital resources.

KP: When and how did you become interested in advocating for empathy? What would be an example of empathic care?

PR: I have had moments in my life when I realized how eye-opening it is to walk in the patient’s shoes. These moments have come to me often when thinking about my own family. When I was a junior attending physician and a new father, I walked into the pediatric intensive care unit and saw a baby lying in a crib on a ventilator. I remember suddenly becoming overwhelmed, which was surprising given that I had just completed six years of pediatric training doing spinal taps on babies, inserting IVs, drawing blood, and being completely surrounded by sick children. During training you had to learn how to set your emotions aside and just do what you had to do.

But in that moment in the ICU when I saw that baby, I thought about the possibility of my own baby getting sick, and it just overwhelmed me. That experience eventually planted the seed that made me think more about how we could relieve pain and suffering when doing procedures on children. At Nemours, we created solutions with the intent of improving the pediatric patient experience. One example of such a solution is administering numbing cream to children getting blood draws. Another is providing them with pet therapy to cope with stressful procedures. There is still much to be done. We need to make sure healthcare environments organically and intentionally allow for the delivery of empathic care to patients from all walks of life.

KP: There is the stereotype that Millennials are an entitled and self-absorbed generation. Given your role as a medical school professor and entrepreneurship mentor, how would you describe the Millennials with whom you interact? In what ways do you see them thriving and/or struggling professionally?

PR: The medical students I teach really get it. They want to connect with patients and ensure compliance with treatment plans. They are very committed to learning about patient engagement, experience design, and being effective doctors. They are facile with technology and use it well to communicate. Unfortunately, many doctors nowadays are facing a major challenge. The national physician burnout rate is greater than 50 percent, which is a symptom of a deep problem in healthcare delivery. It means that the ecosystem is not properly designed so that well-meaning, dedicated healthcare professionals can deliver their best care. But, I tell my students that now is the most exciting time to be in health care. We can now leverage so many advanced technologies and evidence-based practices from sectors outside of medicine to improve the quality, safety, and experience of care.

As for the entrepreneurship mentoring, I actually think it is more like reverse mentoring—I learn more from the students than the other way around. Working with medical students, young entrepreneurs, and the HFA fellows helps me understand more about how we can use innovation, disruption, and design in health care. Moreover, I learn a lot from Millennials who see great value in contributing to a social good and enhancing the user experience.

KP: You’ve provided guidance and mentorship to the HFA fellows over the past three years, witnessing the program’s emphasis on lean-startup and design-thinking methodologies to create solutions with (vs. for) the end user. How do these tools resonate with you as a healthcare professional?

PR: I hope that those of us in health care can learn from startups or at least collaborate with startups to get their nimble, innovative ideas into the healthcare system. In the startup world, there is a lot of designing to optimize the user experience and put the needs of the customer first, and constant reiteration to improve the final product or service as much as possible. Several health systems, however, are now working on continuous improvement models and lean processes that eliminate unnecessary waste in hospital processes.

But to create and sustain a paradigm shift, we would need constant teamwork, flexibility, and innovative thinking across the board. We see this in HFA’s key program components like the simulation phase where the fellows adopt patient personas in order to get a sense of various patient experiences. This is why the medical community is fortunate to have initiatives like HFA. It helps start that paradigm shift by harnessing the energy of bright and motivated individuals with fresh ideas to solve large problems in health care using design-thinking and lean-startup methods. The mission of HFA resonates with me because it encourages healthcare professionals to not only think differently—but to also think empathetically.

Watch Dr. Rosen’s TEDx talk below titled The Next Revolution in Health Care? Empathy.

King John Pascual is a 2016-2017 Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellow. These posts represent his views and those of the professionals he interviews. Follow HFA on Twitter and Facebook. Visit the HFA blog to learn more about the program.

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