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How Emotions Can Fix Healthcare

Every healthcare team has problems to solve. Managing schedules. Making faster and more accurate diagnoses. Navigating insurance quagmires. Streamlining communication. Maximizing efficiency while minimizing errors. Helping patients understand and participate in their own care. The list goes on, and it all points to one goal: improving patient outcomes.

But one simple and neglected way to improve those outcomes is to make stronger connections with patients. We’re not talking about patient satisfaction, though that’s important. We’re talking about a factor that doesn’t come up much in these discussions. We’re talking about emotion.

Emotion Trumps Satisfaction

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemon presented research conducted across hundreds of brands in dozens of business categories, with results showing that the most effective way to increase customer value is “tapping into their fundamental motivations and fulfilling their deep, often unspoken emotional needs.”

By focusing on increasing emotional connections, one company in the study cut customer attrition rates from 37% to 33%. They moved customer advocacy from 24% to 30%, and saw a 50% increase in their rate of growth.

Impressive numbers, but isn’t emotional connection just another term for patient satisfaction? Not quite. Satisfaction is measured by what patients say in surveys or questionnaires. Emotional connection is measured by what patients actually do. Do they come back? Do they keep their appointments? Do they follow treatment instructions? Do they recommend their providers to friends? A patient can give a healthcare team five stars across the board and still fail to engage in the ways that improve outcomes.

Moving toward Motivators

So how is a team supposed to make these emotional connections? Zorfas and Leemon recommend appealing to the specific “emotional motivators” that drive behavior.

Those motivators could include:

  • A desire for confidence in the future
  • A sense of well-being, a sense of freedom
  • A sense of belonging, the drive to succeed in life
  • All of the above and more.

The trick for any healthcare team is to discover which motivators are most active in their patients.

But beware of surveys and questionnaires. Zorfas’s and Leemon’s research in retail shows that what people say motivates them and what actually motivates them are often quite different. That doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t ask their patients questions; it means that they should also observe their behavior.

This can feel like a big undertaking, and it’s understandable that decision makers might look for big solutions. Flashy new tech. Splashy new hires. Focus groups. Consultants. Retreats.

But marketing veteran Rory Sutherland makes it clear that big, expensive solutions are usually not the answer. Behavioral economics shows again and again that “what changes our behavior and what changes our attitude toward things is not actually proportionate to the degree of expense entailed, or the degree of force that’s applied.”

In other words, little things can have a disproportionately large impact. (Sutherland goes so far as to recommend creating a “chief details officer” position, but we can talk more about that another time.)

The trick for any healthcare team is to discover which motivators are most active in their patients.

Words and Details

It all comes down to this: every interaction with a patient is an opportunity.Every phone call, voicemail, birthday card, fax, appointment reminder, letter, bill, social media post, billboard, consent form, and even the occasional face-to-face conversation — every word is a chance to connect emotionally. To delight and inform and motivate them.

  • Do your patients respond better to voicemails or texts?
  • Could your consent form be friendlier?
  • Do your patients need appointment reminders, or help getting over anxiety about their treatment?

There’s no end to the little tweaks a team can try to make their patient’s experience more emotionally engaging. Teams that keep making those minor adjustments—working to turn communication into connections—will see more patients engage and their outcomes improve.