Get away from the 'fluff' and 3 other thoughts on improving patient experience

Coordinating an excellent patient experience across hundreds of care settings — hospitals, physician clinics and surgery centers — is no easy feat, but that's exactly what Debbie Landers worked to do while with Brentwood, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems.

Ms. Landers is now a senior vice president with Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, but she was previously the vice president and chief innovation officer of CHS, one of the nation's largest health systems with nearly 200 hospitals and countless other care sites serving hundreds of thousands of patients. In that role, Ms. Landers focused on patients' experience in the system's hospitals, clinics and other outpatient settings.

Here, Ms. Landers shares four thoughts on what it takes to improve patient experience in the modern hospital or health system.

1. It's not about the "fluff;" patient experience starts with the employee. One of the main misconceptions healthcare executives have about patient experience is that it can be fixed by focusing on hotel-like amenities instead of changing the culture of an organization. "I don't mean fluffy chairs and flat-screen TVs," Ms. Landers says. "That's nice, and hospitals spend an enormous amount of money on that, but patient-centered culture is rooted in the attitude of the team…It really starts with your employees."

Therefore, organizations that have older facilities have no excuse when it comes to patient experience scores, she says. "You may have an old hospital and can't make it fluffy and new like the competitor down the street, but you can outshine them with service excellence coming from every member of your team."

2. Train and hold people accountable. Hospitals that want to make the biggest gains in patient experience need to invest heavily in setting expectations for staff, training them, setting metrics to measure improvement and then holding them accountable, according to Ms. Landers.

Training needs to extend to all edges of an organization, from providers to environmental services workers, patient transporters and all those who provide clinical care. Every employee who interacts with a patient has a chance to leave a good — or bad — impression that can have lasting effects.

"A patient may make a decision based on an office visit that went bad and never engage with the rest of your system," Ms. Landers says.

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3. HCAHPS is a valuable measurement tool. Even though they have been criticized by several parties, patient surveys like HCAHPS are useful tools when it comes to setting metrics and measuring them. "They provide that baseline metric that standardized all hospitals across the country," Ms. Landers says. "It's hard to get that 'top box' score (or 'always' rating), but if you focus training and expectations on your team on the 'top box', you're getting a genuine good metric to measure how the team is doing."

Additionally, national surveys like HCAHPS allow hospitals to benchmark and compete against other organizations locally, regionally or nationally. The survey vendor can also "drill down" to a hospital's specific departments to allow internal competition, which can lead to higher scores and a better patient experience.

4. A CXO is likely necessary. Chief experience officers are on the up-and-up, as people with the CXO title crop up at hospitals and health systems across the nation — and Ms. Landers believes that's a necessary trend if patient experience improvement is going to be a full-time job. The CXO becomes an important C-suite addition for long-term process improvement and culture enhancement both internally and externally.

For instance, if a hospital has "unacceptable HCAHPS scores" and needs a huge improvement, a CXO may be necessary. Also, if the hospital is larger or the system has multiple locations, patient experience improvement is likely a large undertaking, necessitating a CXO with the ability to focus on this effort full-time.

That being said, even when there is a CXO in an organization, the focus on patient experience needs to come from the very top — the CEO. "Regardless of the size of a system or hospital, the CEO has to be the ultimate champion," Ms. Landers says.

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