UNMC Header

Breakthrough Thinking Conference designed to inspire

Image with caption: Daniel Serfaty, CEO of Aptima, highlights the future of learning at the Breakthrough Thinking Conference.

Daniel Serfaty, CEO of Aptima, highlights the future of learning at the Breakthrough Thinking Conference.

Empathy is a powerful antidote to health care burnout.

That was the message from Helen Riess, M.D., who is known for her groundbreaking empathy training research.

On Wednesday, she highlighted the role of empathy in health care as part of UNMC's annual Breakthrough Thinking Conference, which is designed to challenge and inspire out-of-the-box thinking.

The decline of empathy in health care, Dr. Riess said, has resulted in lower patient satisfaction scores, lower hospital reimbursements, low clinician job satisfaction and burnout, poorer medical outcomes and increased medical errors and malpractice claims.

"It's not a trivial matter economically," said Dr. Riess, who is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The good news? Empathy is a skill that can be taught, she said, referencing Empathetics, an online training program she co-founded to train physicians, nurses and frontline staff.

"When stress rises, empathy suffers," she said. "When we don't get as much meaning and joy and sense of purpose out of our jobs, we burn out," she said.

Increased empathy, she said, also increases the patient's - and provider's - physiology.

Dr. Riess encourages providers to "take a walk in our patient's shoes," and focus on their chief concern, not simply their chief complaint. She stresses the importance of making eye contact with patients, especially with the use of electronic medical records in the clinic. It's also important, she said, to read a patient's facial expressions, display an open posture (rather than addressing patients with arms crossed), smile and use a warm tone of voice.

Wednesday's speakers discussed an array of topics related to UNMC's strategic plan to strengthen well-being and inclusivity and boost educational, research and clinical excellence.

"Magic does not happen in your comfort zone - that's business as usual," Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., said, challenging attendees to think broadly about how we all can better the health care profession. Don't be afraid to ask "What if we." or "why not try." questions, he said.

"Nothing is impossible."

The 230 conference attendees from the medical center, University of Nebraska at Omaha and community-at-large also heard from:
  • Margaret Cary, M.D., founder and CEO of The Cary Group, who said the imposter syndrome phenomenon is common, noting that even society's most accomplished individuals question their abilities. "Counteract the gremlin that whispers self-defeating thoughts," she said. Get clear on your strengths, have empathy, adopt a growth mindset, challenge your limiting beliefs, give permission to discuss mistakes and eliminate environments that punish failure. "Stop comparing yourself," she said. "It's toxic to you and to your organization."
  • Michelle van Ryn, Ph.D., the Grace Phelps Distinguished Professor at Oregon Health & Science University and president and founder of Diversity Science, Institute for Equity & Inclusion Sciences, said unconscious bias exists, but it doesn't have to affect one's behavior. "Practice strategies that bring out the best in you, rather than focusing on your own biases." And, despite external forces, it's possible to create microclimates where everyone can show up and be heard.
  • Robert Amyot, M.D., president of CAE Healthcare, championed the use of simulated health care training environments to improve patient safety. In 2018, the United Kingdom lifted the cap on the number of hours of simulation that can replace clinical time in pregraduate nursing programs, he said. And, UNMC is uniquely positioned to better prepare health care providers: "You have a gift in your backyard and it's iEXCEL. What you have at iEXCEL is very unique, and not just real estate, but vision. If you rally behind that, you will change the world."
  • Daniel Serfaty, CEO of Aptima, said the future of learning includes creation of an electronic learning record or performance record. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology challenges the notions of expertise, he said, because AI can learn and reinvent itself over and over. "We think of AI now as a surrogate assistant," but its capabilities are much greater, he said. He also is inspired "by the amazing vision of iEXCEL" and the way UNMC and the iEXCEL team "are thinking not just of medicine, but learning."

UNMC Wordmark