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From HealthLeaders Media '09: Reinventing the Patient Experience

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, October 16, 2009

With tear-streaked cheeks, she reluctantly parted with her little girl. In a state of high anxiety she attempted to comprehend how exactly the mending and recovery process would take place.

And with patience and care, staff took the time to explain each step and, perhaps more importantly, make a real human connection.

Surely a positive outcome is what mattered most, but creating a memorable experience was the underlying goal of the employees at the American Girl Doll Hospital. And the little girl—a prized doll from the American Girl collection—turned out as good as new.

Gar Crispell, general manager for American Girl, shared this anecdote with us today on a panel of experts discussing the patient experience at HealthLeaders Media '09: The Hospital of the Future Now, a two-day leadership event in Chicago.

More than ever, healthcare organizations are trying to reinvent the patient experience—not just to see improvements to patient satisfaction scores, but also as a way of shifting the organizational culture to better meet quality and safety goals.

Although it's sometimes hard to do, it is important not to make assumptions about the girls and moms that come to the American Girl store, says Crispell. While the store's employees can't know what customers are thinking and feeling, they can always try to deliver a consistency and delight with every customer interaction, he says.

And similarly, real healthcare organizations can create memorable experiences for patients and family members that are only as good as the engagement levels of their employees. This reality presents a special challenge to senior leaders who want to change the perceptions of healthcare organizations as cold and emotionally sterile places of last resort.

With continual media coverage of gloom and doom stories of healthcare organizations and the industry as a whole, leaders need to keep fighting against negative perceptions, says Thomas Wright, president and CEO of Delnor-Community Hospital. Just as it is important to have systems in place to identify medical errors, Wright points out that hospital leaders should work to catch team members in the act of doing great things, recognize those extra efforts of employees living the values of the organization, and then share those stories with employees.

In just one of many examples that panelists shared with conference attendees, Wright told the story of a patient's mother who sought him out to thank him for the extra efforts by his staff to find a rag that had been tossed out as trash. This tattered cloth was a comfort to her disabled son who having surgery at the hospital, and she knew how much her son would need it after his procedure. Tearing up, she told Wright how committed the staff was to find this rag for her and her son.

Leaders who make the patient experience a priority for the organization and promote this type of story often help to create staff engagement that becomes part of the organization's culture, says Sonia Rhodes, vice president of customer strategy for Sharp HealthCare.

The San Diego health system has a program that Rhodes calls "first touch" in which employees try to establish a human connection with patients within the first three minutes of their interaction. She says that perhaps more important than sharing information with patients, it is essential to gather information that can help staff deliver a memorable experience. A great and unique patient experience will happen when team members can note something important about the patient, share it with other team members, and then act on it throughout the patient's interaction with the hospital, says Rhodes.

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