Patients can tell when their doctors don’t care. Picture the following two scenarios: in the first, a doctor walks into an exam room, makes a terse greeting to the patient inside, and then quickly examines the broken bone he’s been called in to treat. The patient sits in uncertain silence as the physician works — he’s clearly uncomfortable. In the second scenario, a different doctor breezes into the room and begins making conversation with the patient as he gently assesses the broken bone; by the end of the conversation, the patient is smiling despite the pain in his arm. The two doctors rendered identical treatments to the patient — and yet, their approaches resulted in very different results when it came to patient satisfaction. When we talk about leaders in healthcare, we often point to their resources, as if having the best doctors and the most cutting-edge treatments cements a company’s superiority.


I would push back on this ideology. True leadership in the healthcare industry isn’t only about fixing the problems patients need to be fixed; it’s also about caring for the human beneath the broken arm. Being a healthcare leader means embracing an empathetic culture and making the patient’s experience a priority. This might seem like a stretch for some health professionals; after all, what does it matter if a patient was smiling or not after a visit so long as their medical concern was alleviated? As it turns out, that smile has quite a bit of weight — because more often than not, patients judge their quality of care not by the heft of their treating physician’s resume or the price tag on a medical center’s equipment, but on the way they felt when they saw the doctor. As one Yale researcher reflected on his research findings on the intersection of empathy and healthcare management:


“Sometimes patients are less able to judge the excellent quality of medical care that might have been delivered, but they remember that children’s toothpaste was available in the lobby for the siblings of the patient; they remember having meals or parking taken care of or the efforts of desk attendants, patient care representatives, technicians, transporters — the people who really defined the holistic experience of being at the hospital.”


Empathy and a close attention to detail matter when it comes to healthcare — both in terms of patient satisfaction and overall business success.  


Let’s assess senior care as a case study. Elder-specific healthcare has a number of quirks that generalized care for adults doesn’t account for. According to a recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation, the vulnerable elderly (i.e., patients aged over 65 and at risk of functional decline) typically receive about half of the care recommended for them. Many patients in this category do not have the preventative care they should — and often, care for geriatric conditions is of a lower quality than for those that impact adults in other age groups. In short, elders receive limited care because many providers don’t tailor their offerings to a senior client base. This oversight ties back into the overarching issue of client care; success can’t be determined solely by meeting patient needs. Instead, it must be defined by providers going above and beyond to ensure a positive and personalized client experience.


The process of fostering an empathetic and detail-oriented culture takes time and effort at every rung of the corporate ladder. It isn’t enough for CEOs to tell employees to care about their customers; workers need to want to do so independently. As one researcher reported in an article for the Harvard Business Review, employee motivation has a strong bearing on the quality of client service and, by extension, customer satisfaction. The importance of client service is easy to see in medical facilities because patient satisfaction may tie into real and perceived health outcomes. However, the business sense of creating a positive client experience echoes across all industries, regardless of whether the company at hand is an urgent care center or an airline.


Businesses in and beyond the healthcare industry need to foster caring cultures. High-quality employees and cutting-edge tech might put high-flying companies on the path to prominence, but empathetic client service will ultimately be the factor that cements a leader’s position above the competition.