Overcoming Empathy Fatigue in Patient Financial Services


How to create a positive patient experience when you just don’t feel like it.

The patient experience doesn’t end at the doctor’s office, the hospital, or the lab. In fact, patient financial services (PFS) teams are every bit as integral to the patient experience as a physical visit to a healthcare facility or medical treatment from a provider. And it’s the patient experience during the billing cycle that directly impacts healthcare organizations’ bottom lines.

Needless to say, PFS employees have a huge responsibility to patients (and the resulting success of their healthcare entities). But creating positive, empathetic patient experiences throughout the billing process is often easier said than done.

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“When team members hear patients say ‘My bill is too high’ over 40 times a day, empathy fatigue sets in. It gets easy to stop seeing patients as real people and truly caring about them,” says Diane Lawson, certified patient experience professional and Associate Director of Patient Financial Services at University of Colorado Medicine.

“Empathy is key to delivering an excellent patient experience,” says Lawson. “That’s why it’s so critical to help employees fight off feelings of discouragement and keep them connected to their purpose.”

So how can PFS teams combat empathy fatigue and show patients they care – even through all the questions, emotions, and heart-wrenching stories? It’s not easy. But empathy is a skill that can be learned, and the following “exercises” can help you and your revenue team repeatedly deliver truly excellent and empathetic patient experiences.

When team members hear patients say ‘My bill is too high’ over 40 times a day, empathy fatigue sets in. It gets easy to stop seeing patients as real people and truly caring about them.
Diane Lawson

Ass. Director of Patient Financial Services, University of Colorado Medicine

Encourage self-compassion

Any flight attendant or pilot will tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Why? Because you can’t help anyone else unless you’re taking in the air you need to stay strong.

The same concept applies when your team members are battling empathy fatigue. They need to take care of themselves – physically, mentally, and emotionally – so they are better prepared to take care of patients. Encourage employees to create “space” for themselves on a daily basis, multiple times a day. Show them the importance of physical space – listening to the body’s needs and getting away to decompress. Reinforce the need for mental space – maintaining personal perspective through mindfulness or meditation. And of course, encourage employees to show themselves compassion emotionally through positive internal dialogue.

Define the workplace attitude

Customer service expert Laurie McIntosh summarizes a healthy workplace attitude like this: “You are serving a customer, not a life sentence. Learn how to enjoy your work.”

Lawson reinforces these wise words and talks about how they translate to the patient experience. “At CU Medicine, we absolutely apply this sentiment to our interactions with patients,” she says. “Our purpose is to help patients. Revenue teams need reminded that we choose to do this job, and we are not stuck here.”

Post your organization’s purpose

Another way to ward off empathy fatigue among PFS team members is to continually connect employees with their purpose. “We post our purpose statement all over the department at CU Medicine,” says Lawson. “It’s a visual, everyday reminder of our ‘why.’”

By displaying your organization’s purpose where employees can regularly see it, you provide a regular reminder of the mission that unites your team.

Encourage an internal culture of empathy

Showing empathy to patients becomes easier when revenue teams first build a culture that celebrates and practices empathy. “There is no patient experience without employee engagement,” says Lawson. “And employees are much more likely to stay engaged when we all genuinely care for one another.”

Brené Brown once said that, “Empathy is infinite.” Lawson is continually brought back to that line. “When team members can support each other by sharing information, having potlucks, and celebrating milestones, they get the encouragement they need to pay it forward to patients,” she says.

Equip team members with talking points

Finally, talking points are essential in empowering employees to “make it right” with patients. (Check out the five rules of de-escalation here.)

“We all know that the healthcare industry is tightly regulated,” says Lawson. “We can’t always do what some other industries can to equip our employees for service reconciliation. What we can do is make sure that team members are as highly trained and skilled as possible.”

By providing employees with useful talking points (plus key phrases to avoid), PFS teams can ensure their team members are better prepared to demonstrate empathy rather than sympathy. This helps them serve patients, build trusted, vulnerable connections, and fulfill the organization’s purpose.


“It was just one conversation. But that’s all it took."

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