Developing Empathic Interactions Online

Dr Nicola Davies investigates the importance of adopting an empathic approach to meeting patient needs.



While empathy is defined as the ability to share and understand the feelings of another being, not all humans are equal in displaying empathetic behavior. It is a skill that often needs to be taught in order to give patients a compassionate experience in relation to their medications. While pharmaceutical companies are good at providing objective information to their customers, emotionally engaging with patients, whether online, during recruitment for clinical trials, or written follow-ups to queries can prove more challenging.

Putting people before documentation

Working towards creating change to a more empathetic approach is Bridget Duffy, MD, who is co-founder of ExperiaHealth and the CMO for Vocera Communications, a real-time communication service for healthcare environments. Duffy believes that certain legally required information often takes center stage within healthcare, while the patient’s feelings are ignored.

Pharmaceutical companies do much the same with warnings of complications and possible side-effects on labels and package inserts, which, while legally required, only add to the stress the patient may be feeling. This is where a compassionate approach on a website and on package inserts can alleviate much of the tension felt by patients struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis – allowing them to have common questions answered in an empathic manner.

At this early stage, too much information may be overwhelming and can engender feelings of hopelessness. In order to alleviate these feelings and create a culture of empathy, pharmaceutical companies can identify personal levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) in staff members. Indeed, it is a high EQ level that equates to a more empathic approach. Education on self-awareness, relationship building skills, and the ability to act with intention can all contribute to a more empathic approach to patient care while pharma employees who have undergone EQ training are better equipped to identify the feelings of patients and provide reassurance and information when needed.

E-pharma comparable to offline healthcare

Online purchasers of pharmaceutical and related products want an experience which is, “comparable with, or superior to, offline healthcare encounters,” says David Cook and associates in their study ‘Quality drivers for e-pharmaceuticals system management: a theoretical framework.’ In other words, patients want someone to listen to their problems, show understanding of what they are experiencing, and help them work through their queries.

With 87% of US adults using the Internet, according to a January 2014 survey by Pew Internet Projects, it is interesting to note that their September 2012 survey cited that 72% of US users said they had looked up health information online during the previous 12 months, indicating the need for information presented with compassion.

People diagnosed with a disease are most in need of being known as human beings who are NOT merely their disease. People need to be validated in their humanness and their humanity. The treatment may actually cause more pain and suffering than the disease, though it may save one's life.

For a person who has been newly diagnosed with a serious illness, a visit to the pharmacist to obtain medication will often be followed by checking the website of the pharmaceutical company whose medication they are using. Lou Agosta, PhD, Educator at Illinois School of Professional Psychology, Psychotherapist, and Empathy Consultant at Alleingang Services, has seven publications relating to empathy including a clinical volume entitled “A Rumor of Empathy” (Routledge 2015). He says, “People diagnosed with a disease are most in need of being known as human beings who are NOT merely their disease. People need to be validated in their humanness and their humanity. The treatment may actually cause more pain and suffering than the disease, though it may save one's life.”

Agosta’s opinion is that patients want treatment options that are affordable; people with a diagnosis need to be validated in their humanity, but evidence-based results in plain English are not empathy as such, even though they are useful to anyone who is worried and looking for options.

Giving patients a voice

An important aspect of empathy is listening to patients, as can be achieved by making websites interactive and user-friendly. An informal survey of just a few websites shows that Johnson & Johnson have a standard online fill-in form for queries, Novartis have a blog on which comments can be made about various articles posted by the company, and Novartis also supply a form where suspected side-effects to a medication or vaccine produced by the company can be reported. There are a number of language options and country options to make reporting easier. Glaxo Smith Kline have a “Contact Us” page, giving details of the times they are open in the US and UK for consumers to contact them, and GSK also directs consumers to another page if they wish to report in from other countries.

Not one of the above websites has a live chat option, however. In this respect, pharmaceutical companies could learn from the practices of travel websites on which, as soon as a person starts looking at various travel options, a window pops up with a person offering advice in a live chat. Often, this personal contact doesn’t take very long but helps direct a person to the information they need and allows for basic questions to be answered immediately.

For someone accessing a pharma site, such a tool would enable them to receive advice on where to find certain information on a particular disease, or be directed to an app that may help with monitoring blood glucose levels, for example. All these little considerations like language choice, personal replies to queries, and interest in a patient’s opinion exhibit empathy from the pharmaceutical company involved.

Open communication is extremely important in building trusting patient-provider relationships. Online representatives who answer patient queries could benefit from techniques for engaging patients in open dialogue, making empathic statements, and listening carefully to what patients say and what emotions underlie their statements.

It must be remembered that online health information is often sought on behalf of another member of the family. When a member of a person’s family is diagnosed with a disease needing medication it isn’t possible to remain stoic, so the user’s effort to cope needs to be respected and they need to know that it is quite natural to have strong feelings. There is a movement to try to bring back the warm bedside manner of health professionals. The empathetic approach should carry over to all interactions – whether on or off line - for pharmaceutical companies too.

Involving patients

Make the site ‘more empathic’ by using the site to host a User Group for patients and prospective patients to directly contact one another across all geographies, time zones, and on a planetary–wide basis.”

What patients require from a website is content that relates to questions about their particular condition. Pharmaceutical companies, by allowing patients to assist in designing support forums, would be engaging with those who best know what patients want. As Agosta says, “The web works best as an ‘information broker’ to facilitate social networking, putting human beings in direct communication with one another without interposing barriers or filters.” With this in mind, he advises, “Make the site ‘more empathic’ by using the site to host a User Group for patients and prospective patients to directly contact one another across all geographies, time zones, and on a planetary–wide basis.”

Put contact information up front. Invite inbound communication early and often - and really demonstrate commitment by being responsive. Empathy is about human relatedness, and many websites make it challenging to find a human contact.

In addition to the online empathetic approach, pharmaceutical companies can learn how to be empathetic in other ways from the insights of the users of their products, such as people like Faith Lankford who says, “Easy to read (larger print or bolder) for the Rx number and the pharmacy phone number would help, as would an option to have an easy open lid to accommodate opening for arthritic hands.” Lankford also mentions, “If my cabinet has multiple pill bottles in it and I reach for one, many times several bottles fall over. It would be nice to have well-designed bottles to prevent an avalanche.”

Agosta suggests, “Put contact information up front. Invite inbound communication early and often - and really demonstrate commitment by being responsive. Empathy is about human relatedness, and many web sites make it challenging to find a human contact. Then actually follow through on the commitment, and make a human being available to troubleshoot and get the prospective client what she or he really requires.”

By strengthening the personal connection patients feel to the supplier of their medication, there is the potential for improved clinical outcomes and increased patient satisfaction. “Use the web to find out what people’s experiences really are with the medication, the delivery system, the pharmaceutical company itself, and do this by creating a welcoming social media presence that is operated by patients and survivors. Make it possible to provide feedback on the website itself and on the products and services being promoted,” says Agosta.

In order to survive in a competitive global community there is a need for pharmaceutical companies, in addition to their groundbreaking research and development of drugs and treatments and their laudable corporate social responsibility programs, to convince customers that they care about their outcomes and have empathy for those they are developing drugs and health services for.


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