3 Sure-Fire Ways to Kill a Patient-Centered Culture

Do a search online for "patient-centered culture" and you'll see more than two million results! It's no surprise that in an era of impending healthcare reform, rising costs and increasing consumer demand, hospitals and other healthcare organizations are working hard to ensure that their cultures support a strong patient experience. The problem is that it takes more than good intentions and hard work to make it so. In our work with healthcare organizations around the country, we see a lot of issues that hinder hospitals' abilities to provide a solid culture. Here are just three sure-fire ways to kill a patient-centered culture, things that we see far too often.

1. Talking about patient-centeredness as a priority, and then never speaking about it again. Hospital leaders across the country list "being patient-centered" as a top priority for reasons ranging from concern over reputation, the impact of social media or HCAHPS reimbursement. There is no doubt that the environment today has moved the patient experience front and center for healthcare organizations around the country. The problem is that it takes more than talking about priorities to realize real change. It takes real action. What to do instead:

  • Make patient-centeredness an agenda item at the top of the list of every meeting and forum. Tie these discussions to your mission, vision and values to make it real and meaningful. Make sure the CEO and other C-suite leaders are talking about who you are as an organization and why it matters to your patients — and to you.
  • Help managers keep patient-centeredness front and center by providing tools and data to help frame their messages.
  • Use dashboards to share successes — and setbacks.
  • Engage employees across the organization in discussions about how to hold the gains, make improvements and address setbacks.

Another key point: Don’t "hide out." If senior leaders are spending too much time in their offices and not enough time out among the rank and file — and the patients — they're inadvertently sending signals that they just don't care. These signals are loud and clear and often more impactful than the formal messages that you're sending through other channels. Walk the talk! How to make it real:

  • Spend time very day interacting with both staff and patients (and their families). Not only do you benefit from the positive signals your engagement sends, but you'll also learn from the conversations you have and the observations you make.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to compliment staff on their good work, as well as to make necessary course corrections to improve service.
  • Listen and learn — being visible prompts engagement, but only if you spend more time listening and learning than you do talking.
  • Find out where your staff need support to provide exceptional service and take steps to ensure that they have the tools and training to provide exceptional patient experiences.

2. Watch your finance focus.
Yes, even not-for-profit organizations need a positive return on investment to continue to provide quality care. But if finances are your number one point of focus and discussion every time you open your mouth, what kind of message are you sending? Avoid making finances the first topic of discussion. Instead, create a patient-focused culture by focusing on the care- and experience-related issues that ultimately impact not only the patient experience, but also your bottom line. Studies continually show that focusing on your employees, results in a more positive patient experience — which, of course, will ultimately impact your financial success. For example:

  • Gallup's healthcare consulting model postulates that psychologically committed, or engaged, employees are the key to improving patient satisfaction and loyalty.
  • A University of Wisconsin study explored the relationships between employee satisfaction and hospital patient experiences — and found a positive correlation between the two.

Of course, we don't really need formal studies to tell us what is intuitively apparent. When our employees are happy and engaged, they, innately, provide better experiences, in more positive and supportive environments for our patients. It's not rocket science. Yet, too often, in ways that range from the subtle to the outrageous, we send signals that serve to hinder those interactions.

3. Make it the flavor of the month.
Establishing a patient-centered culture is not a "program;" it's an ongoing initiative that often involves significant culture change. Too often, organizations will talk about patient-centeredness as a program or an initiative. To employees this translates into "the flavor of the month." They'll think: "Okay, I've lived through a lot of these things; if I can just keep my head down long enough, this will all go away." Instead, you need to ensure that your efforts are viewed, not as one-off programs, but as meaningful culture change. You need to do away with the program mentality and make patient-centeredness part of the fabric of the organization. Doing this will send a strong message in support of your mission to care for people. To ensure success:

  • Show how your focus on the patient-experience is integrally tied to your mission, vision and values — that it is part of the fiber of the organization and the core of all you do.
  • Make sure that all of your senior leaders have the language and key messages they need to be positive role models and cascade crucial information.
  • Integrate your expectations with recognition and celebration. Celebrate successes and positive examples in very public ways
  • Link your efforts to measurable quality and safety outcomes. Show how what your employees are doing every day is making a real difference not only in qualitative — but also in quantitative ways

Healthcare organizations around the country, and their staff, are very concerned about providing positive patient experiences. That's why many (if not most) of them chose healthcare careers. Unfortunately, though, barriers get in the way of ensuring that a culture of patient-centeredness is created, maintained and sustained over time. Yes, it takes time; it takes effort, and it takes ongoing focus and commitment. But, ultimately those efforts pay off — for patients, for staff, for the organization and, quite honestly, for all of us. We are all, at some level and at some point in time, healthcare consumers. Taking steps to ensure the care experience that we all wish for ourselves and our families is a good starting point for turning culture around in the right direction — and sustaining the gains that we achieve.

With over thirty years of experience in patient care, healthcare marketing, business development and administration, Kristin Baird is a talented speaker and consultant with a passion for service excellence. President of the Baird Group, Ms. Baird earned a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master's in health services administration from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.

More Articles From Kristin Baird:

Taking Service Excellence From Smile Lessons to Core Strategy
Health Reform in 2013: What's Happened, What's Left & What it Means for Providers

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