At Northwell, 'individualized human connection' outweighs any flashy IT: 4 questions with CXO Sven Gierlinger

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As invigorating as it can be to deploy every state-of-the-art IT solution a hospital can get its hands on, none of those high-tech tools will have any real impact if they are not implemented in an environment that prioritizes patient well-being above all.

At Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y., for example, every new initiative, technology-driven or not, is installed primarily for the purpose of improving patient outcomes. "In the end, it's about the consistency of high-quality individualized care, every time," Sven Gierlinger, Northwell's senior vice president and chief experience officer, told Becker's Hospital Review.

Here, Mr. Gierlinger discusses several of those new initiatives — and how, without fail, their success is measured first and foremost in how they affect the patient experience.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What is an ongoing or upcoming health IT initiative or investment that you are most excited about?

Sven Gierlinger: I'm really excited about the inclusion of more patient-generated health data in our electronic medical records. This is an ever-evolving area that is integral to our internal Digital Patient Experience strategy. Northwell Health has partnered with Docent Health, web-based analytics software that works to improve end-to-end patient experiences by helping connect patients, clinicians and health systems through ongoing data, insights and empathy. Gathering this important information will allow us to tailor experiences to individual patient needs and preference.

This just the beginning of patients actively controlling certain aspects of their medical record, for which they are the source of truth. These developments make for a more dually beneficial process for providers and patients to collaborate on their care.  

Q: As CXO, what do you believe is the biggest challenge currently facing healthcare? What are you doing to address it?

SG: While there are many challenges facing our expansive healthcare landscape, from my perspective as the chief experience officer, it's ultimately about the individualized human connection. Healthcare is a heavily complex and bureaucratic world with heavy regulation, which can be very difficult for patients and families to navigate. Our ability to meet our patients, families and consumers where they are, truly listen and consistently create what they need vs. what we need — that's what makes the difference.

In the age of consumerism and technological advancements, patients and families have choice, and more often than not, their choices are led by how they feel. As our president and CEO, Michael Dowling, often says, "If you deliver quality, patient-centric care, then you build trust and confidence with your patients and they are more apt to come back to you in the future." I couldn't agree more. For me, the foundation is culture — how well that culture can be ingrained into the DNA of an organization and then sustained.

At Northwell, we're focused on a number of things to help us in this area: from educating our 69,000 employees on our Culture of C.A.R.E., which is grounded in connection, awareness, respect and empathy, to the care our physicians provide, with over 1,300 providers that have been trained in our Relationship-Centered Communication program, a full-day, evidence-based communication course for attending physicians, residents and advanced care providers. We've also rolled out a training program for our 16,000 nurses focused on humanism — treating every patient with the utmost dignity and respect, while welcoming, listening and partnering with families as integral members of the care team.

Q: How does your role overlap with that of Northwell's other IT-focused executives? How much collaboration is there between your role and theirs?

SG: There is constant collaboration, overlap and synergy among our teams. Some of the roles I collaborate most closely with are our CIO, VP of Digital & Innovation Strategy and VP of Digital Patient Experience Transformation. I always say, the digital experience can't replace but has to amplify the human experience. Our job is to make it as seamless, frictionless and individualized as possible for our patients, as they weave in and out of the digital and human experience.

Patients have very unique wishes and preferences, and make their choices based on who can meet their needs in the most comprehensive way. For example, some patients prefer to make appointments by phone, while others prefer doing so online or using an app on their iPhone without talking to anyone. Our job is to deliver on those expectations — and that requires collaboration, which happens in the spaces where we overlap. In our organization I don't see a lot of 'pride of ownership' or 'turf wars'; we work together for the benefit of our patients and families, who are our customers.

Q: What are some health IT trends that you think will continue and grow even more important in the future?

SG: There are many exciting new technology trends, but one of the most exciting new technologies in the healthcare space is virtual and augmented reality. From reducing pain to rewiring the nervous system, the clinical implications of what we can do in this space are only just beginning. Working with technology in these radically new modalities, actually administering treatment via art, sound, animation and sensory perception — that's just huge. It's also a profound tool to build empathic connection for staff or loved ones.

Other promising trends in the IT/patient experience space are the inclusion of more patient-generated data, and the push toward taking the user experience more seriously. Involving users and thinking about their needs equals better products. Ultimately, it's the desire to create custom digital experiences for patients by listening to their voices and using that to drive change that matters and that lasts.

More articles on consumerism:
Why chief marketing officers must get the entire C-suite involved in customer service
Technology investment with an eye on consumerism: Q&A with Deborah Heart and Lung Center CIO Richard Temple
Hospital execs turning to EHRs, patient portals to improve patient experience

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