Cannes, France — It’s not every day that we get to see a colleague take the stage at Cannes. But today, Dave Sonderman, Chief Creative Officer at GSW, joined two experts on the art (Jane Gauntlett, Artist and Founder of the In My Shoes Project) and science (Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) of empathy to talk about how that deeper understanding can change the future healthcare. Here are the highlights:


Sonderman recognized that creativity is hard work and understanding what really motivates people is even tougher. But when we get it right, the stories and experiences created are more poignant and more powerful. They’re the kind of life changing creativity we talk about at Cannes. But finding real empathy in healthcare is difficult. In other industries it’s a lot easier to get a gut-level sense of how people feel about products and services. Customers can take a taste test, a test drive, or just play with a product.

In healthcare that empathy is more elusive. In chronic pain, diabetes, fractures, etc., the experience, pain and disease are incredibly individual experiences we struggle to understand.

In healthcare, we can’t try it on. We can’t give ourselves high blood pressure, heart burn or depression. We can’t try a disease on like a new shirt. Or taste test the latest anti-psychotic drug.

Empathy has to stand in that gap.

Riess took us into the science. Or, specifically, the neurobiology of empathy.


Empathy has multiple cognitive elements from “affective components” that allow us to share the feelings of others to “behavioral components” that motivate us to action.

Riess was able to show skin conduction studies that scanned patients biologic responses to interactions with doctors who had high and low levels of empathy. Other studies showed that better patient-physician relationships improved patients adherence as well as how they clinically feel and respond to treatment.

Riess’ own patients would come to their visits complaining about how doctors didn’t have time for them. They weren’t seen; they weren’t heard; they felt like a number. They were making efforts to change their lives and that wasn’t recognized by their physicians.

It’s important, but can we teach it?

Experiences and science like that are at the foundation of 3-hour training that she created at Massachusetts General Hospital to educate physicians on how “to do” empathy.

The program teaches facial recognition decoding (is is fear? disgust? surprise?) so that doctors can better respond to those critical cues. It also helps doctors see the vulnerable person behind a challenging behavior and new strategies to deliver bad news. Six different specialties at Massachusetts General Hospital took the training and since then it’s been extended to video and virtual trainings to make an even broader impact. In randomized, controlled trial, Riess proved that those three hours are incredibly well spent, instantly improving physician interaction and delivering even better results over time.


Gauntlett stepped up to talk about how empathy leads to more powerful patient narratives and interactive theater. She helps people inhabit someone else’s experiences for a few minutes and walk a few steps, or a mile in another’s shoes. Her goal is to create empathy between people. The program, no surprise, is called In My Shoes.

Most of the experiences she shares are others. But one is her own. She created it with film and immersive media to better cross the empathy gap and effectively communicate with doctors, family and friends.

It started on February 3, 2007. Her friend was moving out. She said goodbye and jumped on her bike. That was the last moment of that month she remembers. Around her, paramedics, surgeries, family called in to say goodbye.

Gauntlett lives with a traumatic brain injury. To meet her, you would never guess, but one person at a time, she lets people see her whole life, introducing them through her own In My Shoes story.

Incredible to see the art and science come together and open eyes…

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for shaping the company’s perspective on the next era of healthcare marketing. Through thought leadership, strategic innovation workshops and new products and capabilities, Leigh focuses on identifying marketing approaches that will fuel that new era and generate significant growth for clients. Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for over 17 years. She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she had several leadership roles at one of our agencies, GSW. There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business. Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes. A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice, Leigh also was recognized as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.