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Voices for Safer Care

Insights from the Armstrong Institute

Recently in one of The Johns Hopkins Hospital's intensive care units, a patient was dying from cancer and sepsis, and there was nothing that I, nurse Mandy Schwartz or anyone else could do to stop it. Yet as the patient’s family—two daughters and a husband—suffered at her bedside, Mandy saw their need for comfort, and she responded. Although she was busy with nursing tasks, she delved into the inner life of the patient and family. She helped the mother look as good as possible—hair combed, face washed, a clean gown and sheets. She made sure the patient was pain-free and not anxious. She hugged one daughter who was “a hugger” and avoided embracing the other daughter who wasn't. She sat with the family, listened and supported them in their anguish.

Schwartz gave comfort to the family because she cares and has true empathy.  There’s no way that we could train her to care more. Yet too often, efforts by hospitals to improve the patient and family experience approach it purely as a technical challenge. For instance, we provide scripts to health care professionals to help them navigate various situations, from what to say when walking into a patient’s room to service recovery when things haven’t gone as they wished.  We try to identify and broadly implement the practices that will best enhance patient experiences, such as rounding hourly in patient rooms to address pain management, bathroom visits and other needs.

These are well-intentioned and needed efforts to improve the patient experience. But they could very well backfire if we don’t simultaneously embrace the human element and tap into clinicians’ desire to be empathic healers and comforters. I fear that we send the wrong message, for instance, when we simply hand detailed scripts to staff in low-performing units or hospitals. Subtly, we’re labeling them as someone who does not care adequately for patients, and that they need to be taught how to do better. Here, we say, mouth these words and the patient and loved ones will believe that you care. Likewise, hourly rounding and other interventions will not be effective if we simply treat them as a box to be checked off.

Words are important, of course. And caregivers can certainly learn how to insert key words and phrases into their conversations with patients to show they care and open the door to more meaningful dialogue. However, health care is too complex and nuanced for a lengthy script to be useful.

Clinicians witness the extreme highs and lows of other people’s lives, yet like any job this becomes our everyday reality, with mundane documentation, meetings and bureaucracy. It’s easy to forget that “just like me” someone may be in the hospital for the first time, that their family members must take off work for an extended period of time to be with them, or that the outcome of their stay is a turning point in their family’s future.

When we lose sight of the connection with our common humanity, with our patients’ suffering, we can fail to connect with our patients’ needs for empathy as well as healing.  We can get so caught up in the tasks that we need to do that we don’t stop to care. While we think we are still delivering good care, patients perceive our frenzied state and decide it’s wiser not to raise valid concerns.

What can help us to reverse this?

There’s more than a single thing, but one powerful approach involves coaching caregivers on their interactions with patients and loved ones. On a surgical unit in The Johns Hopkins Hospital, scores on HCAHPS—the national post-discharge survey sent to patients after discharge—were far below national averages. In their written responses, some patients said that they felt unwelcome to raise concerns, or that staff made them feel like a burden.

The low scores understandably got the hospital’s attention, leading to a partnership between the unit and Service Excellence department. As part of their response, Debbie Miller, project administrator in Service Excellence, began to listen in on their conversations with patients from outside of the patient rooms. When these caregivers emerged, Miller would coach them, providing feedback and suggesting what they might have done to improve the patient experience.

At times, Miller would guide them on how to rephrase what they had said so that patients felt better about their experience and more welcome to share concerns. She showed them how they could incorporate key phrases into their discussions (such as What is your goal today? or I’m listening to what you’re telling me…) to reinforce their concern for the patient as a person. She also put together a list of 12 key (and simple) behaviors  to be incorporated into every encounter, such as introducing themselves by name, asking the patients how they want to be addressed and use that name, making frequent eye contact, and allowing patients to tell stories without interruption.

At its heart, she says, her approach was about getting caregivers to shift their focus when interacting with patients, from completing tasks to having meaningful conversations that forge a personal connection and build trust. And it doesn't have to take long, she says. The little things, such as taking time to ask if a patient needs a bed bath or teeth brushed, can have a big impact.

The unit’s scores on HCAHPS grew quickly, and impressively. Within several months, scores typically ranked well above the 90th percentile. In April 2014, they were in the 97th. “My admission was the best experience ever,” write one patient in the survey. “My visitors and family enjoyed the helpfulness of the employees,” wrote another.

Clinicians sometimes need a reminder of our common humanity with patients, allowing us to realize that “just like me” they might be worried, scared or suffering. If we see the connections to patients and find a way to tap into our inner strength as caregivers, empathy will flourish and we can figure out the best way to respond, as Schwartz did. We will know that we should introduce ourselves by name, smile, ask the patient what name they like to be called, look them in the eye, and ask them if there’s anything we can do for them. Hourly rounding will not seem a burden, but rather a blessing. Clinicians will make rounds in patient’s rooms and conduct shift reports at the bedside, to make sure that patients and family members are involved in the care plan, know what’s going on and are able to ask questions. We will recognize the nuances of a patient’s situation that no script could prepare us for.


Peter Pronovost

One of the world’s leading authorities on patient safety, Peter Pronovost served a the director of the Armstrong Institute, as well as senior vice president for patient safety and quality, at Johns Hopkins Medicine from 2011 until January 2018.

5 thoughts on ““Just like me””

  1. Bravo and well stated. I wonder how often these simple human-connection tools are not employed simply because clinicians feel they don't have time. This concise list of effective communication skills are basic to nursing care. Yet I have seen many a nurse not exercise them due to feeling they have far too many other tasks to complete. Maybe an inability to have the time to "allow patients to tell their story" should be added as a litmus test to adequate staffing and an indicator that something else has to be taken off the list. This is the essence of truly excellent care.

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  5. I'm just a patient, but this article was unsettling. In this part-
    "Yet as the patient’s family—two daughters and a husband—suffered at her bedside, Mandy saw their need for comfort, and she responded. Although she was busy with nursing tasks, she delved into the inner life of the patient and family. She helped the mother look as good as possible—hair combed, face washed, a clean gown and sheets. She made sure the patient was pain-free and not anxious."
    It is the very last sentence that makes me think that I never EVER want to end in this position without friends or family with me at ALL times. I would think that making sure a dying patient was pain free and not anxious would be important ALL the time, not just when the family is present. That poor woman, knowing that once her loved ones went home she would lose the importance to be checked on properly, and lie there as the pain and anxiety grows once again. This was written as if the family was the only ones suffering and the patient was treated with care and dignity only because her family was there.

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