Health executives are patients, too: What 11 leaders experienced

Leaders of hospitals and health systems are focused on ensuring patients have a positive healthcare experience and receive the care they need. But they are also patients themselves at times, which can provide greater understanding of what patients go through during treatment.

Becker's asked leaders to share their own experiences by answering, "What did you notice about your healthcare experience the last time you were a patient?"

They said their experiences have provided increased appreciation for providers and shown the importance of a good encounter. 

Note: The responses were lightly edited for clarity. They are listed below in alphabetical order.

Jean Barrett Blake, BSN, RN. Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Patient Services at Sinai Chicago: My last experience at the receiving end as a patient was as an outpatient, for a follow-up visit with my primary care provider. She was overbooked, and I had the last appointment block in her schedule. I waited almost two hours to be seen, because my PCP goes above and beyond with her patients to be sure their questions are answered and she covers all the bases, which takes time. By the time I saw her it was almost 8 p.m.; she was exhausted. Her staff was literally pacing to leave for the day, as they, too, were on overtime and had a long day. They were polite but hurried as they did vital signs and asked about my needs.

As a nurse, I felt terrible for all of them — the support staff and my provider. We have a great relationship and we hugged when she came in to see me. We talked about her workload — how difficult it is for her to get a day off and how overbooked she was in order to make her "required" quota of daily visits. She took all the time I needed, which wasn't a lot.

I thought about other patients who aren't aware of the current situation in healthcare — may not know the right questions to ask. We are at risk of losing great caregivers. Burnout is real.

Gena Bravo, MSN, RN. President and CEO of Dignity Health Woodland (Calif.) Memorial Hospital: Over the last 18 months, I have utilized oncology services at the outpatient infusion center at the hospital that I lead. I continue to be awestruck by the way compassion and kindness is intertwined with the delivery of top-notch clinical care. I have witnessed the staff celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and many other special moments with their patients. I have also witnessed the staff hold the hands of and cry with their patients at their hardest moments. I am truly blessed to have become intimately aware of the way these incredible people affect people's lives daily.

Wendy Horton. CEO of UVA Medical Center (Charlottesville, Va.): Two things stand out from my last experience as a patient receiving care here at UVA Health. The first thing is the amazing caregivers at the bedside who go above and beyond to provide consistent high-quality care with empathy for each of us as human beings. For example, when caregivers make an extra visit to check in on a patient, the extra phone call of reassurance or the conversations to get to know their patients as people. The second is how each patient has a unique, highly specialized care team that is configured to meet their specific needs, and how the next patient will have different needs and may require a different team.

For patients, being treated as a partner in their care, educated about what's going to happen and why makes a big difference in engagement and overall satisfaction.

Tim Johnsen. Senior Vice President and COO of Presbyterian Healthcare Services' Delivery System (Albuquerque, N.M.): Recently, I began having intermittent chest pain. I began my career as an RN in a cardiac intensive care unit and have seen many men who

ignored their symptoms and suffered the results. I scheduled a stress test. Since Presbyterian had recently automated the check-in process, I wasn't sure what to expect. When I arrived, I found one registrar serving as an ambassador, walking up and down the six kiosks checking on every patient. The process was smooth, she was courteous, and I was registered in less than two minutes. I noticed that she was quick to assist anyone struggling with the new process.

What I found most surprising being on the receiving end of healthcare for the first time in a long time was that I was nervous. The tech was very professional, had worked at Presbyterian for 17 years and did not know me. She had a reassuring attitude — something I needed more

than I thought. The goal was to get my heart rate "stressed" to 161 beats per minute and see if ischemic changes would occur on the continuous EKG monitoring me during the procedure.

The cardiologist then joined us and was my best cheerleader during the test. He said that if I went nine minutes without EKG changes, there was a less than 1 percent chance of having a cardiac event in the next year. I loved hearing that. The nine-minute mark felt like crossing the finish of a marathon because there were no ischemic changes and no signs of heart disease. The cardiologist decided I should keep going, just in case.

I made it to 14 minutes, which gave us all great peace of mind. The tech then had a towel ready, the cardiologist offered advice about chest wall pain and the tech walked me to the check-out area. The visit was everything I had hoped it would be. The clinic was clean and easy to

navigate, the staff were professional, personable and worked well together and each person took time to listen, respect and support my needs as a patient.

Doug Koekkoek, MD. Chief Physician and Clinical Executive for PeaceHealth (Vancouver, Wash.): In a recent visit to the emergency department, I did notice some issues calling for larger solutions for our national healthcare system. Upon arrival in the ED, waiting areas are full. When patients are brought back into the department to be cared for, they see gurneys lining the hallway, occupied by patients receiving inpatient level of treatment because the medical surgical floors are at capacity. On the medical surgical floors many beds are occupied by patients that no longer require an inpatient level of care, but inadequate capacity in skilled nursing and intermediate care facilities in the community creates long waits for an available bed. Though the effects are visible in the ED, the cause is a systemic one that requires deeper investments in our broader health ecosystem.

Meanwhile, in a recent primary care visit, I came away feeling optimistic about high-quality care and the great experiences we can provide. My appointment was scheduled conveniently online, on my own time. Several MyChart online exchanges with the office occurred before my visit to collect information on my past medical history and current needs, so that when my appointment day arrived the electronic chart was built and my physician knew who I was and what my needs were. Text reminders the day of my appointment kept me informed and time was allotted at the end of the appointment to address health maintenance chores like needed vaccinations, cancer screening, and cardiovascular risk.

Though there is certainly work to do to shore up the broader health ecosystem, we can take heart from the progress we are seeing in how patients can access care.

Dan Liljenquist. Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer of Intermountain Health (Salt Lake City): In late 2021, I visited my primary care physician, who informed me that the recommended age for cancer screening colonoscopies recently lowered from age 50 to 45. After pushing it off multiple times, I finally went in for my colonoscopy. The doctor who performed it discovered a 2 centimeter tumor in my right ascending colon, very close to my small intestine. On Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, a surgeon removed about one-third of my colon and the associated blood supply to that section of my colon.

My time in the hospital was well spent. My doctor told me that had I received my colonoscopy at age 50, rather than 48, I would not have lived past 55. This feels like an amazing gift for me and my family — the gift of more time than I would otherwise have with my loved ones. I am grateful for the tremendous care I received from all the nurses and techs, my doctors, my surgeon who was able to fit me into his surgical schedule on short notice, and the many years of training and experience all these medical personnel brought for my benefit. I'm grateful that the guidelines were updated based on medical evidence and that I chose to take action in my own health. I'm grateful that healthcare is working together for the good of the patient — for the good of my own health.

Hossain Marandi, MD. President of Helen DeVos Children's Hospital (Grand Rapids, Mich.): In my 20 plus years as a physician, I have had many occasions where the roles have been reversed and I was the one receiving the care. During my last personal healthcare experience, an MRI study, I was struck by the compassion and professionalism of our team, and I learned a real lesson that anyone can experience fear and anxiety during a procedure, even when we know exactly what to expect.

Everything leading up to the MRI was great: initial scheduling, follow-up calls to confirm the procedure, emails and messaging in my electronic medical record, and friendly greetings at the door and at check-in. I thought I knew exactly what to expect during the procedure. But still, I had an unanticipated panic attack while in the tube and had to quickly ask to stop the study. I was scared, breathing rapidly, heart pounding out of my chest and shaking worse than I ever remember as an adult. I could not catch my breath, and I had an uncomfortable sense of doom.

That is when our team shined the most. Bob and Heather calmly and caringly helped me recover. They allowed me to talk through my fear and they made me feel comfortable enough that I was able to go back in the machine and complete the study. The team's professionalism made me proud of them, and I am grateful that they were there. I am reminded that our patients can also experience fear and anxiety during their care, and the feelings are very real. Without all our caring support, they risk avoiding future healthcare experiences and may not receive the care that they deserve.

Bruce Meyer, MD. Executive Vice President and Western Pennsylvania Market President for Highmark Health (Pittsburgh): My recent healthcare experiences have been predominantly virtual interactions with both physician and nonphysician providers. The ease and convenience of virtual care as well as the enormous time savings of not having to interrupt work schedules and travel are remarkable. There is no question in my mind that it is critical for providers and health systems to adopt and integrate this mode of care into our traditional in-person clinical pathways, including for transitions of care. While the digital divide can pose challenges, these innovative technologies that make care more accessible, more personalized and ultimately more affordable, are the future of healthcare. At Allegheny Health Network and Highmark Health, we have made, and plan to continue making, significant investments to expand the capabilities and capacity of our digital and virtual health solutions as a central component of the Living Health model that we are advancing to promote health and wellness, and to drive better overall healthcare experiences and outcomes, for our patients and members.

Manny Rodriguez. Chief Marketing, Experience and Customer Officer for UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.): While it's not my most recent healthcare experience, it's one that stands out.

My mom was being evaluated at a prestigious healthcare organization. When she walked in, the physician observed she was anxious. He asked why and she stated she was afraid he was going to tell her she had a life-changing illness. Instead of approaching her with empathy, he was abrupt and matter of fact and said, "Yes that's what you have." While I understood this physician sees people like my mom every day and has given this diagnosis to many patients, to her, this was a diagnosis with lifelong implications she was hearing about for the first time. Easing into it with empathy and compassion would have made a world of difference.

As a healthcare leader, I was reminded in that moment that we all need to take a few moments to establish a human connection with the patients we care for.

Victoria Smith, MD. Associate Medical Director of Ochsner Health Primary Care-River Region (New Orleans): I recently received care at my own health system — Ochsner Health — for breast cancer, and I truly appreciate the experience of being a patient for seven months. Being a patient enabled me to remember once again how vulnerable and scary it can be to deal with illness and how important empathy from all involved in healthcare is.

I often dealt with a particular patient access representative, who always greeted me with a smile and a friendly "ello." She also noticed when I was not feeling particularly well and would ask me, "How are you doing?" and wish for me to feel better. It was wonderful to watch her over many months provide that kind of care to me and many others as she checked us in for our appointments. 

When patients are running late, it causes real challenges, and sometimes we can take it as almost a personal affront or disrespect. One day I was running late for a physical therapy appointment due to fatigue from chemotherapy. After checking in 15 minutes late, my therapist came out to the lobby, stating, "I was so worried about you. I was just about to call you when I saw that you had checked in. Are you OK?" Her meeting me with compassion and empathy transformed my shame at being late and feeling horrible due to chemotherapy side effects into an experience of healing. 

Mike Yost. Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Indiana University Health (Indianapolis): My most recent healthcare experience was last summer when I had a GI surgical procedure. During my healthcare journey, I noticed the importance of my doctors being on the same page and communicating consistently with me through the process. There was a tremendous amount of coordination among all four of my doctors and their staffs to make this happen. The consistent communication about what to expect before, during and after surgery really gave me peace of mind on the morning [of the procedure]. I was lying in the OR chatting with my surgeon while the anesthesiologist prepared me for the procedure. 

While this was a positive healthcare experience for me, I can't say it has been as great for my elderly parents in the past year. As their healthcare advocate, I often see major breakdowns in their care. And it's usually driven by the opposite of what went so well for me — lack of coordination and communication within their healthcare team.  

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