Differentiating on human experience: How healthcare organizations drive lasting loyalty and growth

In an era that challenges healthcare organizations to do more with fewer resources, patient experience is often considered an add-on. However, in an increasingly competitive environment, hospitals and health systems can no longer solely focus on stripping out waste and reducing costs. A growing body of evidence points to the human experience as a key driver for patient and staff satisfaction, market differentiation, loyalty, clinical outcomes and financial performance. As patients have more information and freedom to choose providers, it is more important than ever to ensure seamless, compassionate healthcare journeys — from the first to last impression. To succeed, organizations must integrate traditional approaches to efficiency and quality with a culture that focuses on relationships and human-centered care. The five imperatives of this infrastructure include the following:  

1. Align experience with quality and safety strategies. Emerging studies show that patients choose healthcare resources based on personal experience and recommendations. Positive patient experience also correlates to quality and safety, making the pursuit of excellence across experience, quality and safety a virtuous cycle. Rather than treating experience as a parallel initiative — separate from quality, safety and performance improvement — successful organizations align these efforts to reduce initiative fatigue, restore joy to the practice of medicine and return care teams to purpose. To unify strategies, leading organizations create a single project management hub that builds alignment across experience, process improvement, human resource practices, and quality and safety initiatives. The establishment of a chief experience officer or similar position allows the organization to exploit synergies and find efficiencies in data collection and methodologies, as well as streamline improvement efforts so frontline staff don't view experience as a "flavor of the month." To succeed in leading the creation of new care delivery models, leaders in all areas must have strong clinical credibility and a willingness to work across traditional organizational barriers. This centralized structure will enable the creation of unit-level champions, departmental transparency, alignment of goals and the proactive development of experience solutions. Creating the ideal human experience must be highly visible, measured, tied to the organization's operating rhythms and on the agenda for every member of the organization's leadership team. Only those organizations that hold themselves accountable for experience as they would quality and safety will drive lasting results.

2. Build a relationship-based culture. To build a differentiated human experience, a focus on building connection and relationships must be integrated into all aspects of an organization — from executive leadership to frontline care teams. Successful organizations foster a culture in which patients, families and staff members at every level are viewed as valued members of the team, and every member of the organization is empowered to deliver exceptional patient care. Organizational culture and communication among healthcare team members influences the quality of working relationships and job satisfaction, in addition to profoundly impacting patient safety. Leaders advance this culture by creating partnerships between physicians, nurses and administration. This team culture requires executive commitment and a clear understanding of and dedication to organizational goals on the part of empowered frontline staff members. Building a relationship-centered culture also includes investing in an environment that empowers healthcare workers and allows them to support each other, and where resources are effectively deployed to allow frontline innovation to shape and influence strategic priorities. Organizations demonstrating true commitment to improving experience will make the investments and tradeoffs required to bring the right people into the organization, to move out those who are not a fit and to ensure that all employees are able to achieve peak performance.

3. Infuse the voice of patients and families. To strengthen a relationship-based culture and develop processes that support the human experience of care, leaders must keep a close pulse on the voice of patients and family members, as well as physicians and staff. Listening to these voices requires more than simply deploying satisfaction surveys, which only scratch the surface and are often conducted too many days after a patient leaves the care of the hospital or clinic. An optimal healthcare experience for patients and families can start with a "sacred moment" upon admission whereby a nurse or another caregiver simply asks about their fears, concerns, spiritual needs and expectations of the hospital stay or procedure. We must listen to the voice of patients to understand what they need to heal and to engage them and their loved ones in the plan of care. And while it is important to listen, it is also essential for organizations to build an infrastructure to proactively capture the voices of patients and families throughout the healthcare journey to guide innovation and processes improvements. Using technology, this feedback can be systematically captured and analyzed in real time to discover opportunities, celebrate progress, and identify change agents and potential mentors. Experience-focused organizations collect ongoing patient and staff voice, integrate patients and families on project teams, include patients and families in leadership forums, and tap into social media and other emerging resources for added insight.

4. Map the gaps in efficiency plus empathy. The most innovative ideas often come from within an organization. Toolkits, checklists and protocols that are imposed from the outside or from distant leadership rarely take root. To make a lasting impact on experience, organizations must engage and empower staff at every level to create innovative solutions. In doing so, multidisciplinary teams can create the next standards of care, or Always Events®, which are aspects of the patient experience that must be performed consistently for every patient, every time. Instead of focusing solely on cost reduction and efficiency, leading organizations concentrate on understanding gaps in the human experience of care and hardwiring evidence-based solutions that bridge these gaps. Experience mapping enables hospital leaders and frontline staff to identify barriers in care and provides valuable information about what matters most to patients, their communication preferences, and their emotional, spiritual and physical needs. Using this human-centered approach, multidisciplinary teams can create standards of care that restore connections; increase patient, family and staff satisfaction; build trust and loyalty; and drive organizational growth. After identifying gaps in patient understanding and compliance of hospital discharge instructions, Cullman (Ala.) Regional Medical Center implemented technology that allows nurses and doctors to record discharge instructions at the patient bedside. After a hospital stay, patients, family members and caregivers can access the personalized teaching at any time using any phone, computer or mobile device. As a result of this extended communication, the hospital reported a 15 percent decrease in readmission rates and a 63 percent increase in patient satisfaction. In 2014, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement recognized the practice of recording discharge instructions as an Always Event.

5. Put science behind the human experience of care. As healthcare organizations implement human-centered care models, they will be required to measure their impact on patient satisfaction and outcomes. To accelerate this scientific agenda the Vocera Experience Innovation Network, a growing group of innovators, industry mavericks, hospitals and health systems have partnered with the Stanford University Clinical Excellence Research Center. Twice a year, the Network hosts a CXO Roundtable that brings together physician and nurse leaders, CXOs and executives to showcase proven strategies, innovations and best practices. Members of this research collaborative in the U.S. and Canada are measuring and sharing proven best practices related to physician communication, patient and family engagement, care team coordination, care transitions, alarm management fatigue, staff resiliency, and many other key drivers that create and sustain an ideal healthcare experience. By studying and sharing the impact of the human experience, these organizations can set the next standard of care for the nation.

M. Bridget Duffy, MD, is the chief medical officer of Vocera Communications, Inc. and the co-founder of the Experience Innovation Network, where her mission is to assist organizations in rapidly transforming the patient experience. Dr. Duffy previously served as chief experience officer of the Cleveland Clinic — the first senior position of its kind in the nation — leading the institution in establishing patient experience as its top strategic priority. Her work has earned her the Quantum Leap Award for spurring change in her field. Dr. Duffy attended medical school at the University of Minnesota and completed her residency at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

Dr. Duffy will host a Becker's Hospital Review webinar titled "Designing the Ideal Communication Network to Optimize Healthcare Outcomes" on Tuesday, Oct. 21. Register here.

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