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Lessons in Patient Experience from 'The Office'

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, March 10, 2010

If we’ve learned anything from E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy, it’s that fictional television shows often take great liberty when portraying healthcare organizations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

A good portion of a recent episode of The Office takes place in a hospital maternity ward, and it gives some valid insights into how the general public views the hospital experience—and how we can improve it.

If you don’t count yourself among the 9 million Americans who watched The Office baby episode, here’s a brief synopsis. (Spoiler alert, if you’re really behind on your DVR watching.)

Nine-months-pregnant Pam goes into labor at the office and her boss Michael drives her and her husband, Jim, to the hospital. After dropping the parents-to-be off, Michael parks the car illegally (no valet service). Once inside, Jim and Pam deal with a sarcastic nurse (poor employee training), a shared patient room (inadequate privacy), and a male lactation specialist (just plain awkward). Hilarity ensues.

As I watched this episode, the patient experience issues jumped out at me. The next day, I sent a mass e-mail to my marketing advisory board to see if anyone else shared my thoughts. While some said healthcare marketers should take the episode on the chin and let it go, most seemed to think there were many valuable lessons to be gleaned.

What sets the hospital scenes in The Office apart from ones done by other TV shows is that the series doesn’t need to hyperbolize to create humor.

"Like the whole theme of The Office, the best humor comes from the everyday stuff and people we encounter," says Chris Bevolo, president of Interval, a healthcare marketing and branding agency in Minneapolis. "The good news from a healthcare marketing perspective is that people likely won't think twice about the patient experience scenes because they are so typical. The bad news is they are so typical. Worse, given the 'normalcy’ of those situations, it's likely the episode won't inspire many hospitals to change either."

Thankfully, it seems that most hospitals have sparked a desire to change on their own. In fact, nearly 90% of top-level healthcare executives said the patient experience is either their top priority (33.5%) or among their top five priorities (54.5%), according to the HealthLeaders Media Patient Experience Leadership Survey.

Unfortunately, things get murky from there, and a lot of it has to do with a lack of resources. Most survey respondents (46%) said they spent less than $50,000 on patient experience initiatives and 11% said they had no patient experience budget at all.

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