Empathy-based technology, the Cleveland Clinic way

“Is this seat taken?” I asked as I fumbled to find a seat with my ‘signature healthy lunch’ in hand and with the breakout session just about to start. “No, I saved it for you” said a particularly fit and healthy woman, who shifted her gaze away from her laptop and gave me a warm smile you could only expect from a decade long friendship.

Turns out that woman is Adrienne Boissy, Chief Experience Officer of the Cleveland Clinic, a neurologist and a huge supporter and pioneer of harnessing the power of empathy in healthcare. No wonder talking to her was such a breeze! I got a chance to ask her a few questions about how technologies are being chosen in the Cleveland Clinic.

Unlike most people I interview, she started off by asking me about what I do, why I left medicine, and what excites me about technology. Adrienne radiated empathy, and after my first question, it was apparent that it was one of her professional success factors too.

“Patient relationships are therapeutic, and when all else fails in health care it will be the only thing that survives” Adrienne says to the crowd at the famous Unmentionables session at Health 2.0 2015

Omar Shaker: What is the process you go through when adopting a technology at Cleveland Clinic?

Adrienne Boissy: I think the paternalistic idea of thinking that we, the doctors, know what is best for the patients, is outdated. If we are saying that we want to improve the experience for the patient, then the patient should be a huge part of the process that decides what will work versus what doesn’t.

OS: You let the patients decide?!

AB:Yes! Why not? It’s going to impact the people we serve the most after all. We have patient surveys and patient advisory councils, but more importantly, we add patients to our working groups and have them co-create with us.

This has been especially helpful with chronic disease care path development. How can we provide diabetes care? COPD management? Asthma care?

Patients these days also don’t just want their care through the traditional appointment. They’ve told us they want access anywhere, anytime. In response, we’re using technologies that allow for appointments via a smartphone app, online second opinions, and through specialized health kiosks at convenient locations.

The patient’s perspective about this is very different than that of doctors and they both need to be on the same table.

“A patient who comes in because of multiple sclerosis isn’t a customer, he’d be the most reluctant customer ever” Dr. Adrienne explained

OS:What are some of the other key elements that you take into consideration before investing in technology?

AB:Clinical transformation has evolved as a new area of focus and within it there is quality, patient experience and value. Those have been in silos and are coming together including their data and outcomes and how we can transform future technologies.

We then look at how pragmatic it is and whether it solves several pain points. There are few technologies that do all of that.

OS:Can you tell us about some of the companies whose technology you have adopted at the Clinic?

AB:We have adopted a patient education platform that engages patients and allows them to take a more active role in their care, as well as a platform which connects patients to doctors with timely information. The question now is: Can they relate to outcomes and value?

It has become an absolute requirement for our solutions to improve all three areas of focus which I have mentioned. We don’t just pilot them, but there is ongoing discussion to say how can we improve the pilot to show us how our metrics are impacted.

OS:What are some of the challenges you face?

AB:Now more than ever, there is an assault of priorities. We need to decrease the number of initiatives, and focus on a specific vision. Throwing some technologies at the wall and seeing what sticks doesn’t work. Does it move the needle on quality, value and patient experience?

Another issue is that the number 1 frustration for doctors is the time away from the patient. The technology has to enhance the connectivity, ensure their success and make it easier. Some technologies add to the workflow and that gets in the way of physician adoption.

Finally, this all has to be tied to patient experience. The Boston Globe just published research showing that it takes the patient an average of 2 hours to visit the doctor. If people can’t get to your facility, then it doesn’t matter how fancy your technology is!

Adrienne gave a talk on the main stage the next day on the power of empathy, and explained how it is the missing link in health care. Their intent at the Clinic is to build initiatives around patient relationships rather than patient satisfaction surveys.

Perhaps empathy, and patient engagement are still a few years away from being fully realized, but the fact that top executives like Adrienne in large organizations like Cleveland Clinic are already adopting it and making it happen makes me very optimistic of this radical change to realistic value-based medicine.


Omar is a physician, writer and data analyst. After realizing the potential of exponential technologies to reshape the inefficiencies of healthcare, he left medicine and moved to San Francisco to immerse himself within the network of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, while working on technology projects of his own. Omar frequently writes for Health 2.0 News while consulting major organizations with the Healthcare Practice of Clarity Solution Group. View all posts by OMAR SHAKER →

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