Much like the practice of health care, communication is both an art and science. For many patients, the best care experiences (and results) stem from a provider’s understanding of the role and importance of communication.
It is this complex, often-unspoken relationship that we seek to explore in this article: between a trustful care provider and a trusting patient, where value-based outcomes weigh in the balance.
We know that every healthcare system must have well trained medical professionals who have competence and expertise in their chosen field. However, what sets a successful healthcare system apart from the rest is effective communication. Communication between healthcare professionals and patients is an important predictor of the overall quality of the healthcare system. More specifically, effective communication between nurses and patients (as measured by the HCAHPS) is the most important predictor of patient satisfaction .
Effective communication is especially important in healthcare because of the unique blend of “trust” with uncertainty in healthcare. Typically, in non-healthcare settings, we trust those we know to accomplish personal tasks we understand; however, in medicine, it is quite the opposite. In fact, while the practice of medicine is perhaps the most personal profession imaginable with many decisions affecting life and death, we often don’t know or explore the details of that trust. And this lack of understanding and uncertainty surrounding what is really happening over the course of treatment, combined with our blind “trust” in care providers, ultimately leads to anxiety and stress, neither of which is advantageous.
The quandary is that healthcare professionals should never be expected to provide patients with every detail necessary to truly understand the ins and outs of a medical procedure. For one, that approach is wholly unnecessary and frankly unsustainable, given resource and labor constraints. But the healthcare provider needs to be able to communicate enough so that this “trust” is not completely blind, and also for uncertainty to be reduced as much as possible.
So what affects a patient’s trust? We know that a patient’s perception of their healthcare provider competence is likely to influence patients’ confidence in healthcare service providers’ reliability and expertise. Research shows that responsiveness, assurance, empathy and satisfaction are significant factors in explaining patient trust.
Two things must occur to achieve this goal of building trust.
First, the healthcare professional must provide the patient with a basic understanding of what to expect. If a patient must undergo a medical procedure, then need to understand the numerous pre-operative, perioperative, and post-discharge steps that must be followed. Patients also need an understanding of what the clinic or hospital visit will entail. What is the pre-operative room like? What is the operating room like? Is there a recovery room? How long will they be there? Will they experience pain and for how long? What else can they expect that they have not considered?
Second, and most importantly, the patient needs to know that the healthcare professional understands the patient. The patient needs to know that the healthcare professional understands the stress and anxiety associated with the upcoming medical procedure. The patient needs reassurance, in word and in deed, that the healthcare professional empathizes with their situation and will be responsive to the patients’ needs. This is, at its core, a call for empathy and shared experience with the patient.
The traditional approach to patient education is to provide several pages of text that outline the various pre-operative, perioperative and post-operative instructions, procedures and risks. Although this is easy to construct and deliver, it is suboptimal from a learning science perspective—the marriage of psychology and brain science. Text is 2D, abstract and engages only the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. This system is limited by working memory and attention load, but of which are adversely affected by stress, and by normal aging.
The traditional approach to empathy training is to provide reading materials defining empathy and outline the appropriate set of behaviors. In some cases, role play and simulation are used to build empathetic behaviors, but this approach is time-intensive, cost-intensive, and not scalable.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, can address the shortcomings of traditional approaches to patient education and empathy building. With interactive storytelling in virtual reality you “learn through experience”. Experiential learning with VR is far superior to information learning with text because VR broadly engages multiple learning and memory systems in the brain in synchrony.
As a patient you can don a VR headset and follow the journey of a fellow patient during their pre-operative, perioperative, and post-operative phase. They might walk you through the necessary changes in diet and exercise prior to the operation. Both of you might then follow as a nurse gives you both a virtual tour of the hospital setting. You see the preparation room, the surgical room, and the recovery room with all of the gadgets including your trusty call button. Finally, you might spend some time with a patient while they recover at home, and walk you through what to expect on your road to recovery.
As a nurse you can don a VR headset and “walk a mile in the shoes of a patient”. You can obtain a first-person virtual experience of the stress and anxiety that a patient feels when someone is explaining a procedure to them and they don’t understand all of the jargon and terminology. You can experience what it is like to be a patient interacting and communicating with an empathetic nurse and with a nurse who shows little empathy. These “walk a mile in my shoes” experiences are visceral. They engage emotional learning centers in the brain and quickly and effectively build empathy.
When effective virtual reality education and training of healthcare professionals is combined with virtual reality training for patients, a shared experience between patient and professional emerges. There is a shared understanding. This will reduce the stress that patients feel and will enhance patient satisfaction. This will also increase the confidence and engagement in healthcare professionals.
This shared experience and effective communication is what sets successful healthcare systems apart from the rest. With VR training for patients and healthcare professionals you can achieve this goal—one experience at a time.