Digitizing Healthcare: Can AI Augment Empathy and Compassion in Healthcare?

With the advent of the latest technologies and software, including generative artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, ChatGPT, and others, organizations are racing to find purpose and use for these new tools in fear of losing relevance in the marketplace. In most industries, incorporating new and emerging technologies is seen as innovative, impressive, and ambitious. In healthcare, an industry that inherently holds the lives and touchpoints of care of many populations across the nation in their hands, moving towards digitizing healthcare inherently demands greater discernment around true impact, quality, and cost.

In the case of healthcare AI, we have seen its arrival signal developments in interactive and customized patient experiences, facilitated or eliminated administrative tasks in hospital or provider workflows, and improved access to healthcare. Yet there is still much work to be done. Some AI tools aren’t yet equipped to source from up-to-date and relevant materials, require human editors or handlers to double check the results and work, and should be optimized to recognize and appropriately address human emotion that consumers need. When it comes to addressing evolving patient and healthcare gaps, we are left to question, can AI help augment empathy and compassion in healthcare, or will it eventually crack under the pressure?

What is empathy and compassion?

Empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand. Empathy is simply defined as feeling for someone or being aware of other’s emotions and attempting to understand how they feel. Compassion is defined as feeling for someone and having the desire to help, an emotional response to empathy that evokes a desire to act. Within healthcare, compassion and empathy can play a critical part in improving patient outcomes and furthering patient care quality, yet the industry still struggles to find ways in which to foster and support the use of compassionate and empathetic care across the industry.

Evidence increasingly validates that exhibiting empathy in a healthcare setting, including providers, professionals, social care workers, etc., has shown results of higher satisfaction levels, and better health outcomes for patients. Compassionate care is also highly regarded by patients and can help providers determine appropriate care plans that focus on the unique patient’s needs based on their care story. Compassionate care can also strengthen physician-patient relationships as trust is established throughout care. Patients value compassionate and empathic concern as much as, if not more than, technical competence, when choosing a physician, yet empathy and compassion among healthcare professionals is sometimes seen to decrease over time, especially during training and clinical practice.

The current state of empathy and compassion in healthcare

As we continue to move towards care models that express or emphasize the attractiveness of value-based care, some argue physicians are unable to empathize with every patient genuinely and effectively without feeling emotionally drained. Compassion fatigue, highlighted as burnout and emotional exhaustion among healthcare professionals, is another deterrent to improving care as this phenomenon can lead to reduction in empathy, decreased patient and employee satisfaction, poorer clinical judgment, and other emotional turmoil. Overall, healthcare professionals today are finding it difficult to properly provide compassionate care under modern time and labor constraints, affecting both provider and patient satisfaction and outcomes, and leaving both feeling unsupported within the care continuum.

In combatting time and labor constraints, AI has proven to simplify workloads, maximize time, and offload repetitive or organizational tasks from an already over-burdened workforce. In regard to emotion, empathy or compassion, AI has also progressed to be able to recognize and respond to emotional distress. Experts debate AI cannot replace human empathy, specifically in a healthcare setting and with empathy being key to the successful treatment of patients, yet a recent JAMA Internal Medicine report found ChatGPT’s patient-provider communication skills were rated higher than that of their physician counterparts, including on the empathetic scale. While machines currently cannot “feel” a need or desire to help, as compassion requires, AI can replicate questions and responses that mimic an empathetic interaction. While we might question how AI is better able to provide these interactions to patients than providers, we must recognize AI chatbots are not better at empathy, AI is just not under the same time pressures as human clinicians.

How AI can help augment empathy and compassion

There is an inherent opportunity that emerges for AI to be used to help physicians provide better, compassionate, and empathetic care. Whether we use AI in training or to help free up time and space for healthcare workers to provide better care, we need to continue exploring effective AI use across the care continuum to help every member— patient and provider included. The healthcare industry should prioritize a patient’s experience with compassion and empathy within healthcare rather than just looking at the outcomes. Through this, when using AI tools to augment and improve compassionate and empathetic care, we can ensure high standards are met with each interaction. The measurement of experienced or perceived empathy and compassion can easily be deprioritized for return on investment measured in hard dollars. Yet, there is most assuredly a return on investment when an individual stays engaged in their health journey due to compassionate interaction.

Our human impact on the consumer experience needs to be at the forefront of our care as we look to improve performance. Health teams feel a sense of responsibility towards their impact on a human’s lived experience. This is a foundational element to a better company culture where healthcare systems and organizations are better able to impact patient outcomes and assure the intersection of AI and empathy is beneficial for all.

In its current state, AI can be relied on to improve efficiency, and free time/emotional labor for healthcare professionals to focus more fully on the human side of care – fostering trust and relationship, and properly engaging with patients. Yet to conclude that AI and artificial empathy will evolve enough to completely replace physicians/healthcare workers, or the human side of healthcare is to misrepresent the issues at hand and the possible solutions. To digitize healthcare and lean on the emerging technologies is to find the opportunity within the relationship between machine and human to augment humans’ ability to be human – to empathize and provide the compassionate touch to care.

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