Empathic Inquiry, a conversational approach to social needs screening, was developed by OPCA to promote partnership, affirmation and patient engagement through social needs screening.

In the growing movement in health care to address the social determinants of health, system changes have largely focused on the tools for social needs screening, rather than the communication skills required to effectively guide these interactions with patients. In order to create primary care environments that provide patient-centered, whole person care, we must build our systems and prepare our workforce to approach these delicate topics with an emphasis on sensitivity, compassion, and patient empowerment.

Empathic Inquiry was created through the synthesis and application of motivational interviewing and trauma-informed care approaches, along with input from patients and other stakeholders.

We call our approach Empathic Inquiry because these words describe how we hope to relate to patients, from a place of non-judgmental curiosity and understanding. Empathic Inquiry is intended to facilitate collaboration and emotional support for both patients and health center staff through the social needs screening process, as well as evoke patient priorities relating to social determinants of health needs for integration into subsequent care planning and delivery processes.

Download Empathic Inquiry implementation tools below, and if you’d like to learn more about our Empathic Inquiry resources, please contact OPCA’s CHC Transformation Director, Brooke Linn.

Insights from the Pilot

The pilot Empathic Inquiry Learning Collaborative was conducted in 2018, and included both in-person training and remote learning and implementation support over 6 months.  We evaluated the pilot using a combination of surveys and qualitative feedback from participants, as well as surveys of patients who participated in an Empathic Inquiry social needs screening conversation.  Highlights of what we learned include:

Organizational Experience

  • Health centers participants felt more confident and comfortable conducting social needs screening conversations after completing the training.
  • Participating organizations reported greater clarity in care teams on the role of community health workers, as well as greater integration of community health workers into care teams.
  • Implementation of social screening enabled health centers to identify and assist people before their need is an emergency.
  • Significant clinical resources are required to scale up a patient-centered approach to social needs screening. Challenges included leadership commitment, staffing, lack of physical space, adequate time in the patient visit flow, and cooperation from other members of the care team.

Patient Experience

  • 132 patient experience surveys were received.
  • Patients agree that the empathic inquiry conversation strengthened their relationship with their care team (64% strongly agree and 28% somewhat agree).
  • Nearly all patients agreed that the conversation was a good use of their time (83% strongly agree and 14% somewhat agree), even though patients often did not previously know the staff member (56% had never met them before and 30% had interacted with the person once or twice before).
  • Patients believed social needs screening should happen regularly: 54% every time I receive care, 27% once every 6 months.

This project was supported by Kaiser Permanente Northwest Community Benefit.