Getting to the heart of the matter
Getting to the heart of the matter: Like all of our nurses who’ve been through empathy training, Tammy Van Tassel knows that emotional care is just as important as clinical care.

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Nursing Innovations

02. Nurses should walk in their patients' shoes.

Imagine that …

  • You come to the hospital for the birth of your second child, and your wife dies during labor.
  • You need emergency surgery, but you don’t have enough insurance or money to cover the medical bills.
  • You get in a serious car accident, wake up in the ER , and learn that you’re paralyzed.

These are just a few of the real-world patient scenarios that we work through during empathy training.

Nurses can’t go through the difficult work of treating patients if they don’t care about them. And while our nurses have always cared about our patients, it simply wasn’t showing five years ago like it should have. Our patient satisfaction numbers were uncomfortably low—and to turn them around, we knew we needed to better connect with the emotional needs of our patients and their families. So we created a whole new type of professional development for our nurses, and we called it empathy training.

Compassion as curriculum.

Nurses are constantly building their clinical skills, but that’s only part of what they need to be successful. With empathy training, we help them understand what it feels like to be in a hospital and to feel angry or scared or confused or helpless or alone. In other words, we help them understand what it feels like to be a patient. During the training, nurses are given real-world patient scenarios. They’re asked to put themselves in the patient’s shoes and think about what that person might be feeling. Then they identify any barriers that could keep them from meeting that patient’s needs—and they discuss ways to break them down.

“It’s a transformational experience. It’s a chance for nurses to stop and think about just how hard it is to be a patient.” —Teri Olsen, Director of Project Development

Changing personal attitudes—and professional practices.

Empathy training shifts nurses’ personal thinking and professional actions. At the end of each session, nurses are asked to commit to this new perspective by stating what they’ll stop doing as well as what they’ll start doing. Through this practice, we’ve made hundreds of big and small changes to our nursing practices—from avoiding medical jargon, to saying “I’m sorry,” to giving a hug. “With empathy training, our nurses have a chance to reach inside of themselves and really identify with their patients,” says Teri. “And that has made all the difference.”