Why empathy is good medicine for marketers

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Phillips made a 'kitten scanner' to help kids get over their fears of MRIs.
Phillips made a 'kitten scanner' to help kids get over their fears of MRIs. Credit: Philips

"The experience at the DMV is more favorable than it is at the doctor's office today," said Clay Johnston, dean of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, on a panel this year at South by Southwest.

He's right. Think of the last time you visited the DMV. I don't know about you, but I knew exactly what to expect, and I walked out with exactly what I needed. I wasn't even mad at my driver's license photo. I can't say my last visit to a doctor's office ran as smoothly.

It's confounding that the point-of-care experience is so underwhelming given how seamlessly our lives are integrated with health information. The watch I wear on my wrist knows how fast my heart is beating. I carry a supercomputer in my back pocket that gives me access to exponentially more information than "Gray's Anatomy." Yet somehow, instead of improving the consumer experience, this proliferation of technology has made our providers colder and our care more costly.

Our health care is the worst consumer product on the market.

So, what's missing? What could we pair with technology and other advances to improve the overall health-care experience? What we need is not another algorithm but a healthy dose of a human quality lacking in many consumer health-care interactions: empathy. And not just from our providers, but from all stakeholders and brands that play a part or sell a service in the process.

Empathy is so much more than how you listen to and understand patients: It is also about what you do to improve their journeys.

Only by forging a path to empathy can brands and institutions hope to add value to the health-care consumer experience. Happily, I'm encouraged by those that are leaning into this era of patient empowerment by leading with empathy. Here are some examples.

• Cochlear produced and screened a love story in movie theaters that acted as a hearing test in disguise for more than 97,000 Australians.

• In India, Savlon created Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks, made from soap, for children to use in school to help prevent foodborne illnesses.

Merck partnered with Amazon Alexa to hack solutions for patients with Type 2 diabetes, funding a voice-activated scale and foot scanner to prevent diabetic foot ulcers.

• Philips invented a "kitten scanner" to help kids become comfortable with having an MRI; it consists of a miniaturized version of a CAT scanner, a TV screen and several toy animal characters to serve as "patients."

AstraZeneca created a product in Mexico, Life Bandages, that used an added enzyme to help detect diabetes by spotting high blood-sugar levels. Because kids hate getting shots, this solves two problems at once: closing a wound and getting the test taken.

• Asha Ek Hope and Neurogen BSI of India developed a sign language for eyes, Blink to Speak, to help paralyzed patients communicate.

• The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation produced 20 animated films to help explain cancer treatment to children.

The more that health-care systems, technology companies, academia, health-care providers, patient advocates and drug developers can partner in problem solving, the more likely we are to see true innovation that's centered on empathy.

"How do you feel?" is the simplest, most humane question you can ask people you love and care for. But all too often, we forget to ask those who are sick—and whom we're trying to engage as marketers.

These brands set an example for all drugmakers for their ability to translate emotional data through empathy into experiences that make patients' experience with their health care better—in every stage of their journey.

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