The Importance of Therapeutic Relationships


At CAMA, we believe that it is critical that the healthcare system invest in its patients by creating and designing environments that promote healing and provide emotional comfort. Psychologist Kathy Torpie argues that the recent preoccupation with hospitals investing in hotel-like amenities stems from the misguided assumption that patients should be thought of as traditional customers. In her article, Customer Service vs. Patient Care, Torpie astutely observes that,

“Customers are generally well people who enjoy elevated status by virtue of their potential to purchase goods or services. Patients, on the other hand, are (by current definition), not well. Their status is greatly reduced by illness or injury that renders them vulnerable, frightened, often in pain, medicated, exhausted and confused. In spite of these limiting factors, patients sometimes have to make important, often complex, decisions in a short time frame.  The ‘goods’ they are purchasing are a return to health and the ‘services’ they seek often require an unspeakable level of trust in their ‘service provider’.”

Unlike most retail experiences, even those from Apple and Starbucks, healthcare experiences tend to be memorable in some way. Across the entire spectrum of care, whether from the routine blood draw or a life-saving operation, the act of receiving medical care is incredibly personal.  As we cope with our own vulnerability and entrust our health and wellbeing to our care team, we may experience a range of emotions, simultaneously or in quick succession. Under such stressful circumstances, patients have very basic needs. According to a Press Ganey report, “patients want to feel as if they are the most important people on the staff’s mind. They want to be kept informed, talked to (not at) and to be active participants in their own treatment.” Don't you prefer when you are included in the discussion and decisions surrounding your care or the care of those you love?

"Patients want to feel as if they are the most important people on the staff’s mind. "

- Press Ganey Report

Instead, all too often these fundamental needs are not met and patients are left “waiting for an unknown person, to do an unknown thing, at an unknown time,” says Mary Malone, President of Malone Advisory. This is what can cause distress, leaving patients and their families dissatisfied and anxious. Yet, a better scenario is possible. Torpie explains that outstanding healthcare experiences, or therapeutic relationships, result when the emotional needs of the patient have been met. She explains, 

“A therapeutic relationship focuses on care for an individual more than on service to a customer. It requires connection, respect and compassion…The clinical, interpersonal and communication skills necessary to ensure that the patient is safe, comfortable, cared for and included in treatment planning are what generates not only patient satisfaction, but gratitude.”

Connection is what binds us all together and what richly infuses our lives with purpose.

Connection. Feeling like you belong; being part of something bigger than yourself. The best retail brands are able to tap into our emotions and build a loyal following of customers by creating a product that enables people to feel this connection and belonging. Purchasing their products and services feels good.  Rarely, though, do these experiences make us feel grateful. 

Investing in positive healthcare experiences can do both - it can provide a service that makes people feel good while also giving us something for which we can be grateful. Those who have had an incredible healthcare experience speak passionately about the people who cared for them and how indebted they feel to them.  Healthcare organizations recognized for their compassionate, inclusive, and empowering patient-centered experiences rarely need any marketing campaigns at all - their reputations for such positive experiences bring people to their doors time and time again.  

Healthcare organizations recognized for their compassionate, inclusive, and empowering patient-centered experiences rarely need any marketing campaigns at all.

As Alpa Vyas, the Stanford Health Care VP for Patient Experience, noted in 2016, "'Design Thinking' is a way for health care to make changes by empathizing with our patients and their families". At CAMA, we too believe that this process can be a formidable tool, enabling us to design environments and experiences that better meet the needs of patients. 

Our designers and design strategists strive to begin their Design Lab work in the project planning phase, allowing time for visioning sessions, focus groups and other services that unearth the more personal, hidden and often, previously overlooked design challenges that affect the patient experience. CAMA believes this vital work must include not only the client and their teams in this design thinking process; our participants in the visioning process often are comprised of an array of patients, caregivers, members of the surrounding community and other top evidence-based design leaders. The voices and perspectives of these participants can shed light on how we can create environments that support improved care for patients and their families.