ICBioethics Blog 

Building and Reinforcing Clinicians’ Soft Skills May Take Health Care in the Right Direction Toward Improved Patient Outcomes and Satisfaction

Written by: Dr. Kathy Gennuso

Healthcare organizations invest heavily in education geared towards developing medically sound practitioners, yet many still fail to see the wisdom of spending to develop their clinicians’ “soft skills.” (Those who don’t may want to explore the correlation between those who do invest in developing those skills and improved patient satisfaction, the sought after condition that leads to 5-Star HCAHPS ratings.) These soft skills are people skills like conflict resolution, team work, influencing, coaching, listening, giving feedback, demonstrating empathy, and delegating—all relevant to good interprofessional, as well as clinician-to-patient relationships. Because many of today’s patients are pretty savvy consumers and often professionals themselves, they bring a higher level of sophistication and expectation into their healthcare experiences. Simply stated, they expect to see their clinicians’ soft skills developed and in action; i.e., they expect their care providers to communicate effectively with each other, and they demand respect, truthfulness, caring, and forthright, humane communication from healthcare administrators and practitioners—and those who don’t demand it, probably still expect it, and all most assuredly still deserve it!

As the use of talent analytics continues to gain momentum, industries are finding it easier to measure the presence or absence of these soft skills among the people of their organizations and to consider their implications. Some are finding out what others’ have known intuitively all along: the human touch matters, but organizations can’t take for granted that it is always being applied. In fact, a large-scale research study “High Resolution Leadership,” conducted by Development Dimensions International (DDI) that tracked, among other things, front-line leaders participating in structured simulations found that no more than roughly half the sample consistently displayed effective behavior like using soft skills in any of their interactions.

However, when DDI conducted this meta-analysis, comprised of 160 studies involving 15,000 leaders across different levels and in various industries in 44 countries, they reported finding that essential soft skills can be learned through behavior-based approaches like positive modeling and repeated practice, observing an impressive 49% increase in soft skills after adequate training. Furthermore, the meta-analysis noted an average $4,000 return on every $1,100 spent developing soft skills (Sinar & Wellins 2016). That’s good news: now health care take note!

We probably all know how downright irritating it is to have to interact with a car salesperson, banker, mechanic, or store manager who exhibits poor to non-existent people skills. But when we get that treatment in the health care industry, where we really expect people to care about our welfare (or at the very least act like it!), it goes way beyond irritating . . . debasing and frightening come to mind for starters. And would anyone deny that patient anger, frustration, and feelings of insignificance and hopelessness could lead to poorer medical outcomes? Unfortunately, the Feb. 2015 issue of Consumer Reports seemed to indicate a noticeable lack of many clinicians’ soft skills (as well as other staff’s) in their reported findings of a national patient safety survey funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. In the over 2600 participating hospitals, an alarming one in four of those surveyed said staff didn’t consistently treat them “like a person.” Furthermore, about 1/3 felt their wishes weren’t always honored and staff didn’t always listen to them without interrupting; 21% felt outright discriminated against, according to the report.

It’s not surprising then to hear that two of the biggest challenges found in the DDI study seemed to be with maintaining the other person’s self esteem and employing empathy, both prominent in building integrity-based working relationships. Author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, Roman Krznaric declares, “The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be the capacity to create relationships which means empathy will count more than experience.” (In our health care, we want both – exemplary clinicians’ soft skills and medical expertise!)

MIT professor and sociologist Sherry Turkle emphasized the inherent importance of quality human interactions in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age: “Face-to-face conversations are the most human — and humanizing thing we can do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood” (2015). It’s where we employ our soft skills that strengthen the human connection.

This doesn’t just apply to our intimate relationships—it needs to be realized in all professional interactions—and most especially the spotlight should shine on health care–where individuals’ lives or future well being and happiness are daily at stake.

Sinar, Evan, and Richard S. Wellins. “The Hard Science of Soft Skills.” Chief Learning Officer, 25 April 2016.

Mitch Gennuso