Building a culture of compassionate communication

At North York General Hospital our goal is to ensure that when patients and families come through our doors, they feel compassion, well cared for, and respected. 

We've heard clearly from our Patient and Family Advisors (PFAs) ― volunteers who lend us their patient and family perspective to ensure everything we do at the hospital reflects their needs and interests ― that simple actions such as smiling, introducing yourself, listening, empathizing and responding appropriately when a concern is voiced, is fundamental to the patient experience. 

This is why we have adopted Communicate with Heart, an industry-leading practice on effective communication and relationship building designed by the Cleveland Clinic. It consists of two programs that we provide to our staff, physicians and volunteers: S.T.A.R.T with Heart and Respond with H.E.A.R.T.

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Smile and great warmly
Tell your name, role and what to expect
Active listening and assist
Rapport and relationship building
Thank the person


Apologize when a concern is voiced

My name is Leela, how can I help? 

“When someone smiles at you and says ‘hello my name is…,' it opens the door that allows people to connect with each other ― we can't go on to build trusting relationships without these vital first steps,” says Leela Prasaud, a North York General Patient and Family Advisor. “These small actions enhance communication by setting a positive tone. This signals to patients and families that we are here to support them through every aspect of their care, even when they are not feeling their best.” 

In addition to the feedback from our PFAs, there is ample evidence that using service excellence standards in health care settings is as beneficial to patients as the safe, high-quality treatment they receive.

Service excellence standards keep patient experience at forefront 

A 2017 report from the Ontario Patient Ombudsman Christine Elliott ― now the Ontario Minister of Health and Long-Term Care — revealed the need to improve communication was a reoccurring theme in health care. The challenge in hospitals is that speed and efficiency are necessary in order to care for the high volume of patients. The key is that kindness and empathy don't carry any additional cost or take more time. 

“People who work in health care are genuinely caring individuals who want the best for all patients, but there are times when administering a test or procedures can become quite routine,” said Jennifer Quaglietta, Director of Patient Experience, Quality, and Patient- and Family-Centred Care. “But we must never forget that for the patient and their family, it may be something completely unknown, confusing and sometimes scary, which is why we need to utilize strategies like service excellence standards to keep the patient experience at the forefront of everything we do.”

Staff meeting training on the patient approach
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 Standing, from left: Clara Ho, Consultant, Patient- and Family-Centred Care, and Leela Prasaud, Patient and Family Advisor, provide all new employees with training on our Patient- and Family-Centred Care approach and service standards.

Importance of how we deliver care

As the notion of patient- and family-centred care continues to evolve and spread throughout the health care system, it has given rise to the understanding that how care is delivered is just as important as providing the right, the quickest and most technically advanced care. When patients feel safe, calm and understood they are more likely to be an active participant in their care plan and be able to fully engage with their health care team. 

“As a physician, we are often driven to "fix the problem" as quickly and efficiently as we can. We focus on establishing a diagnosis and developing a treatment plan,” says Dr. Shaheen Doctor, Neonatologist and Medical Director of the Tippet Foundation Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. “Communicate with Heart helped me to understand the value of pausing in the "hearing" and "empathizing" phase of the patient interaction. This small investment in time has a powerful effect on the interactions I have with patients and families!” 

By the numbers:

  •  In a 24-hour period, patients have approximately 25-30 interactions with staff, physicians and volunteers.
  • Over a three-day period, patients have approximately 100 interactions with staff, physicians and volunteers.
  • Each interaction is 10 minutes or less.
  • Since we launched our service standards in Sept 2017, 1,421 staff, physicians and volunteers have been trained in the Communicate with Heart program.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of The Pulse. 

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