With the Accountable Care Act, the call for transparency in quality and performance metrics, and more attention paid to the patient experience, physicians easily can find their focus diverted from their most important responsibility — their patients. One of their most important tools, human kindness, sometimes can get lost. Over the years, those who have gravitated to health care have done so because they feel it is a calling to serve others at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives. I believe it's that vulnerability that makes human kindness so important.

A few extra minutes of listening without interruption or a warm smile that says to the patient that you are "present" at the beginning of their visit may seem an insignificant part of a busy day. But to a patient and his or her family, it provides a sense of comfort and calm during what may be a stressful, emotional and chaotic time. For more than three decades of practicing medicine, I have seen firsthand how these little displays of kindness can enhance a patient's experience and ultimately affect outcomes. In short, this means being kind first and clinical second.

My colleagues at Dignity Health and I have long believed in kindness and compassion as part of our treatment plan for every patient. A recent survey by Wakefield Research for Dignity Health, one of the five largest health systems in the nation, confirmed our longstanding belief that delivering care with kindness matters. Eighty-seven percent of Americans feel that kind treatment by a physician is more important than other key considerations in choosing a health care provider, including average wait time before appointments, distance from home and the cost of care.

Yet, 64 percent of Americans have experienced unkind behavior in a health care setting, including the failure of a caregiver to connect on a personal level (38 percent), staff rudeness (36 percent) and poor listening skills (35 percent). The Wakefield survey underscores the important role that kindness plays in the provision of care and service to our patients.

Kindness, Satisfaction and the Bottom Line

In what has become an increasingly depersonalized world of electronic communication, advanced technology and self-service on the Internet, kindness may seem inconsequential. But kindness is, indeed, important to patients. Feeling comfort, experiencing a sense of community and being cared for as a whole person and not just as an illness allow patients to focus on healing.

These feelings are so powerful that they help patients to decide where to seek treatment and how much they are willing to pay for it. The Wakefield survey revealed that nearly three-fourths of respondents would be willing to pay more to visit health care providers who emphasized kindness in their treatment approach. In addition, nearly 88 percent are willing to travel farther to receive kinder care.

Many years ago, I took care of a mother who lost her infant in the last week of her pregnancy. The infant was delivered stillborn. My colleagues told me that when similar tragic events happened in their practices, the mothers never returned to their care for subsequent pregnancies, so I never expected her to return to me. However, over the next few years, she returned not once but twice to deliver two beautiful and healthy baby girls. I believe she returned because of the relationship that was built over the loss of her first child and the kindness and compassion that was my privilege to share. It was about being kind first and clinical second.

Kindness influences how patients perceive and trust their caregivers and, ultimately, their decision over whether they will return to a provider or care setting. Unkind or rude treatment from a physician or other care provider may discourage a patient from returning. In fact, 90 percent of those surveyed say they would feel like switching health care providers after receiving unkind treatment.

Not only do patients change providers when encountering rude care, they also speak out to share the negative experience with others, especially younger patients. A quarter of Americans ages 18 to 39 have used social media to complain about unkind treatment from a health care provider or physician. In a time when any given patient may have a presence on a multitude of social media channels, a 140-character complaint can travel a long way.

Perhaps it's time to take another look at kindness, not only as a privilege to share, but also as a business investment.

Working Kindness into the Equation

As we know, open communication between patients and their caregivers is essential to ensuring optimum health outcomes. Without trust, information is withheld, concerns are not voiced, and providers can't deliver the best possible care. Of those surveyed, more than half had omitted information about themselves or their health when speaking to an unkind provider. Kindness as an attribute and a quality can remedy this distrust: Eighty-two percent of those surveyed are more likely to trust physicians who stress kindness when treating patients.

Fully adopting kindness into our role as health care providers means thinking beyond our interactions with patients. It means thinking about how we approach our work and work processes to ensure that we have infused human kindness into every interaction we have with patients and with each other. At the center of our patients' experiences with us is our personal engagement and experience with our staff.

A Kinder Future

The national conversation on health care has devolved into an acrimonious Washington debate that is no longer focused on what matters most: how well our system is serving the millions who depend on us every day. Now we have an opportunity to implement reform in a way that brings the healing power of humanity and kindness back to health care. The Wakefield survey results have reinforced our determination to practice human kindness every day throughout Dignity Health — including the processes and policies that strengthen the human connection among our doctors, nurses, caregivers and patients so that everyone who becomes part of our community feels welcomed, safe, comfortable, listened to and respected.

Only by changing how we think about kindness at the bedside, in the workplace and in our community can we deliver world-class care to our patients, and the utmost trust and comfort to their families and loved ones. For each act of human kindness in which I have been privileged to share, there has been an intangible return that fills the soul and makes me want to do it again and again.

Gary Greensweig, D.O., is the chief physician executive of Dignity Health in San Francisco.