The ROI of Being Nice

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 13, 2008

So I'm thinking of taking a part-time job as a healthcare secret shopper or mystery patient. In the past year, I have been to five different hospitals as a family member or, most recently, as a patient. And since, in the past, I've railed about poor customer service and dirty bathrooms, I figured this time I ought to give credit where credit is due.

On Friday afternoon I went straight from my doctor's office to a nearby community hospital, which squeezed me in for an emergency CT-scan because there was, my doctor told me, a 10% chance I had appendicitis.

(A side note: I'm not writing this column from my hospital bed, and I didn't need an appendectomy. The moral: Never go to your primary care physician with a mysterious stomach pain on a Friday afternoon, because she will go to the ends of the earth to get a diagnosis before you ruin her weekend.)

It's been pouring rain for about two months straight here, and this afternoon was no exception. And, of course, I'd forgotten my umbrella. Which is why I was so relieved to see a clear sign at the entrance to the hospital parking lot directing me to the free valet parking. My very first experience at this hospital on this day was a positive one. And so was the second: The woman behind the window at the front desk greeted me immediately and pleasantly directed me to radiology.

Of course, by the time I got off the elevators, I couldn't remember if she said to take a right and then a left or a left and then a right. I stood there for a while. I was overwhelmed because this had all happened so quickly, worried that my appendix was about to burst, and now confused about which way to go.

And that's when a hospital employee came over to me and said "You look a little lost." And then, rather than just giving me directions to radiology, he actually walked me to my destination.

"Hey," I said. "You must read my columns." (OK, I didn't really say that, but I'd like to think he does.)

And this wasn't a fluke—it wasn't just one guy who took pity on a pathetic-looking patient. Later, I saw a physician in a white coat walking an elderly woman to her destination. After they parted ways with a smile, I heard the older woman say to herself, "Well, wasn't that nice of her?"

Guess what? You can spend $50,000 on a slick TV and radio campaign. You can spend a million dollars on the latest piece of equipment. You can spend half a billion building a new wing or tower.

But being nice is free.

There should not be a hospital in the world that cannot manage to pull this off. What could possibly be stopping you? Is it too hard, too expensive, to train your employees to say hello? To make eye contact? To smile? To be friendly?

In fact, it is neither difficult nor expensive. In staff meetings, talk about the power of being kind. Put the occasional reminder in the employee newsletter that the little things make a difference. Reward employees when you catch them doing something nice. Shout it from the rooftops when a patient or family member writes a letter of thanks. Celebrate when patient satisfaction scores improve. Hire people who know how to smile. (Or, as a last desperate measure, hire me to be a mystery patient at your hospital.)

And the return on that miniscule investment? Better patient satisfaction, which leads to better HCAHPS scores, which leads to better quality rankings, which leads to a better reputation, which can make folks, when they have a choice of where to go for care, choose you.

Being nice isn't just free—it's a good investment.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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