What healthcare can learn from Harley-Davidson



What emotional response does your healthcare brand trigger for patients?

Medicine X, a conference hosted by Stanford on emerging healthcare technology, took place last weekend on the university's campus. Among the speakers — which included Amir Dan Rubin, president and CEO of Stanford Hospitals & Clinics, and Robert Pearl, MD, CEO of Kaiser Permanente Medical Group — Julie Wheelan, vice president of marketing for healthcare innovation incubator Edison National Medical, discussed patient-centric care, and the confusion surrounding it.

Patient-centric care, while important in today's healthcare environment, is an ambiguous concept. An informal survey of more than 250 respondents uncovered numerous definitions of the term.

For healthcare providers seeking to make care more patient-centric, this ambiguity makes their efforts more challenging: They must first define what patient-centric means for their organization, and then empower employees and medical staff to bring the concept to life through processes and behaviors.

For Wheelan, who worked at Harley-Davidson and helped expand the brand into Asia, patient-centric care involves understanding "how emotional connections are forged with customers."

"In my time at Harley-Davidson, for example, I came to appreciate why someone would tattoo the brand's name on his or her arm. When a customer purchases a Harley, they are not simply purchasing a way to get from Point A to Point B; rather, they are buying a tangible (and loud!) statement about their freedom and independence," she has said.

You don't buy a Harley solely as a form of transportation, you buy it for the ride — the journey — as well as the emotions and values associated with the brand, such as independence.

Hence, Harley-Davidson's tagline: "It's not the destination, it's the journey."

How are emotional connections forged in healthcare?
"It's not the destination, it's the journey" as a mindset is apropos for patient-centric healthcare.

A patient's experience is determined more by the course of care than by the outcome of that care. A patient with an excellent outcome can have a terrible experience, while a patient with a terminal illness may have a positive, caring and supportive experience. The difference depends on how the healthcare providers respond to both their physician and emotional needs.

The emotional response
Harley-Davidson is the brand it is today not just because of its bikes, but because of the emotional response it triggers for its customers.

What emotional response does your healthcare brand trigger for patients?

When patients reflect on their experience at your organization, does it invoke worry — of waiting for nurses to respond, inadequate pain management, lack of information and unclear information about diagnosis, treatment and discharge? Or, does it invoke a sense of calm — bringing back memories of a truly caring nurse, or a physician who went out of her way to explain each test, update the family and address their emotional needs?


Providing supportive, patient-centric healthcare requires taking into account the emotions and desires of the patient and his or her loved ones. Clinicians must give patients and providers a voice in their healthcare, and remove red tape that inhibits this approach.

As an example, Wheelan shared the story of a patient who wanted to receive acupuncture while in the hospital. The patient asked for it directly and was willing to pay out-of-pocket; however, the facility's rules barred the acupuncturist from visiting the patient.

Healthcare leaders reading this can probably think of a host of reasons why allowing an acupuncturist to treat a patient at their hospital is risky. But what if it's what the patient wants? Would there be a way to allow it, perhaps asking the patient to sign a waiver absolving the system of potential liability?

Putting the patient before bureaucracy is something that is rarely done today, and something we should aim to do more.

Have a story to share about putting patients first? Share them with Lindsey Dunn at ldunn@beckershealthcare.com.


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