What HC Corporate Leaders Can Learn from Patient Care in the ICU

How do providers support patients when they are at their most vulnerable? The ICU offers patient insights for health care corporate learners about care at challenging moments.

Illustration of a person pushing another person in a wheelchair with a doctor.

When patients and families arrive in the ICU, they may be overwhelmed with emotions, feeling terrified, lost, and alone within an enormous, impersonal hospital system. It’s a day they’ll never forget, Margaret (Molly) Hayes, MD, often reminds her team. Dr. Hayes is the director of the medical intensive care unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where helping patients when they are most vulnerable can become routine for people working there. After all, it’s part of the job.

But Dr. Hayes would also point out that empathy for patients is important far beyond those in care delivery roles, and we agree. Corporate leaders at all levels within health care companies should encourage patient centricity in their organizations. As in other industries, businesses that engage their stakeholders are better positioned to understand and meet customer needs. In health care, understanding and addressing unmet patient needs can lead to innovations that meaningfully transform their lives.

Care providers help make hospital visits more personal and offer support at key junctures of the patient journey. How they do so may be interesting — and offer insights – for health care business leaders.

How clinicians humanize the ICU experience

In a single hospital visit, there are many different components — departments, services, and individuals — that need to work well together to make the experience positive, says Dr. Hayes, a member of the HMS faculty in addition to her clinical work. 

“I think it’s frustrating for patients to feel like they’re sort of just lost in this huge hospital system,” she says. “So, the more we can humanize the experience and help them through it, the better they’ll be and the better the families will be.”

In the ICU where Dr. Hayes spends her days, she often sees patients at the scariest point in their hospital journey, when they are very sick and have a relatively high mortality risk.

“Many are thinking the worst, and the baseline is that it’s hard, it’s scary and it can feel dehumanizing,” Dr. Hayes says, feelings she has also experienced when accompanying her parents to hospital visits.

Dr. Hayes and her team try to incorporate patient centricity into their work, first and foremost, by consciously recognizing who each person is beyond the medical condition being treated.

There’s an “All About Me” poster in the ICU at Beth Israel Deaconess, which reminds staff of the unique characteristics of each patient, especially ones who struggle to talk because of their conditions. The poster highlights questions for families to answer — What do they like to be called? What do they like to watch on TV? What kind of music do they listen to? Taking the time to find the answers to these questions shows an interest in personal connection and an effort to individualize each interaction. 

When the care team takes an opportunity to show empathy and prioritize patient centricity, patients feel that providers care and experience a degree of empowerment in a situation that may feel out of their control.

What companies can learn from direct patient care

Stories from clinical care providers highlight the importance of patient centricity and the value of helping patients feel seen and heard. When patients have a positive health care experience, everyone wins — the patient, the patient’s family, the doctors, the hospital, and other stakeholders in the industry — so there is a shared, vested interest in improving the experience at every step of the patient journey. 

Health care industry leaders and business professionals can strive to be more patient-centric in their companies, even if they don’t work directly with consumers. One way is by adopting a mindset like that of Dr. Hayes. She has to manage a technologically complex set of tasks to help patients, but also must understand the patient journey and experience, empathize with patients going through a complex, bewildering, and sometimes scary process, and understand how many different roles — even if they don’t directly interact with the patient — can have an impact on patient experience. 

This mindset can take different forms across health care companies, from digital health to biopharma companies, and might mean solving gaps in current standards of care; choosing trial endpoints that are important to patients; trying to minimize the burden of clinical trial participation; or providing high-quality information about diagnoses and treatments.

Starting with a curious, thoughtful, and empathetic mindset — and moving beyond tools like patient surveys and focus groups — can help business professionals prioritize patient centricity and humanize health care delivery. 

Industry professionals look to HMS for guidance on how to incorporate patient centricity into their work, and sometimes that includes going out into the field, themselves. A group from General Electric spent time with Boston Health Care for the Homeless where they heard about the importance of establishing a trusted relationship with the guests and walked away with powerful lessons about the value of empathy in client and stakeholder relationships.

To provide these programs, HMS leverages faculty expertise from throughout the School and the entire Harvard University community to share with health care teams. To learn about HMS Corporate Learning custom programs, read about the approach or hear from clients themselves.