Humans and Rubik’s Cubes

An NG tube is basically a large and inflexible drinking straw shoved up your nose, down into the back of your throat, snaking down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Once placed, the tube causes incredible discomfort. After a few days, it hurts the side of your face in which it was inserted. You don’t want to eat, talk, or even be awake.

This was exactly the state I was in during my stay at an ICU for a bowel obstruction. An NG tube was placed to suck up the bile accumulating in my stomach. The surgical team would arrive early every morning, usually led by the chief surgical resident, a man with hairy arms and a military-style gait. He would march in, shake me awake, and start barking questions while fiddling with the suction settings on my NG tube, causing nausea. Then he abruptly pressed into my distended stomach trying to find where it hurt—which was everywhere. It seemed I was not as much a person to him as a Rubik’s cube he was tasked with solving. I hated his daily visits.

During one particularly awful night, I took a turn for the worse. The nurse and at least a dozen overnight doctors paraded into my room to try to remedy the situation. Each came, tinkered with the suction on the NG tube, and gave me a look over, but no one solved the problem.

Morning came, and in marched the chief surgical resident I so despised. He again started barking questions and adjusting the suction. “It’s out of the stomach. I can fix it!” he shouted. I was furious. Even with the discomfort of the tube and the pain of my stomach, I managed to sit up in bed and shout, “You mean to tell me after 12 other doctors came into this room and couldn’t figure this out, you’re the genius who can fix this! Get out of my room!” I threw my index finger in the direction of the door.

Finally, it struck him that I did not trust him. The man suddenly grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “I am your friend! I am your friend!” he pleaded. For the first time, he seemed to interact with me like I was a fellow human. “It’s just a little out of your stomach.” He said softly, “We just need to push it in a little bit and you will feel better. It will only be uncomfortable for a second.” I looked at him incredulously, but I could see he was sincere. I cautiously relented. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Can I push it in?” I nodded and winced. He slowly pushed the tube in 1 inch, then 2 inches, 3, then 4. “There,” he said. He turned the suction on. I instantly started feeling relief. This man who I hated was right. Our relationship changed at that moment. I suddenly had respect for his expertise. He connected with me as a human rather than as a puzzle to solve.

Empathy in Practice

Empathy is the most powerful and underutilized tool in medicine. For several years, I went to Drexel University’s medical school one day a year to speak to medical students. The theme was always the same: Stop and listen to your patients. Not only do they know their body better than you do, but you need to gain their trust to be an effective physician.

Most nurses understand this intuitively. For RNs and NPs, empathy is the currency exchanged to complete their jobs. Once they’ve gained the patient’s trust, they walk the patient through what is going to happen one step at a time. Without empathy, a nurse would never get a child to sit still for an IV or an elderly patient to take his medicine.

For healthcare marketers, there are several important lessons to be learned:

Just as in the exam or hospital room, empathy in healthcare communications begins with listening to patients. Much like that chief surgical resident with little bedside manner, brands often talk at patients rather than with them. Listening to patients’ needs is key to every project.

Connect with the patient. Look that patient in the eyes and say, “I am your friend. I am here to help.” That’s much easier to achieve when you’ve done a lot of listening. The foundation of listening leads not just to an understanding of patients, but also of the real problems that patients face. A campaign can then become a vehicle to solve real problems rather than just sell a product.

Walk patients through the information step by step. We talk a lot about the customer journey in healthcare, but every day I see tactical executions with no thought given to solving specific patient problems. Instead, I see clumsy attempts to coerce patients toward a brand goal. Again, this starts with listening, finding the right problem to solve, and then taking the patient through at their own pace. Oftentimes, the most key steps seem so incredibly small to us that we miss them.

Deliver the goods. The pharmaceutical industry—despite its bad rap—is an enormous force for good. From lifesaving drugs to genuinely helpful patient support programs, pharma changes people’s lives for the better. Much like that chief surgical resident I despised, pharma can deliver the goods. Pharma just needs to learn to embrace patients, look them in the eyes, and say, “I am your friend.”


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