Putting Employees First: How to Improve Patient Experience, Profitability

What does it mean to create a culture that focuses on the employee, but finds positive results in all measurable categories including profit? As CEO of BerylHealth, a company specializing in managing patient interactions through multiple touch points across the continuum of care for hospitals and health systems, we found that focusing on culture to drive employees in the critical role they play in our success just may be the answer to the issue of improving the patient experience for hospital systems.

Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re a healthcare executive that faces all the pressures of running a hospital or health system coupled with federal oversight, reduced payments and overcrowded emergency rooms. There’s not a tougher, more scrutinized and often controversial industry out there. So why should you care about culture?

Because of all the burdens you face, culture is one thing you can champion and the one thing that touches every single person in your building equally. It starts with the senior leadership and filters all the way to every single bed in your facility. Culture lays the foundation for the patient experience. Culture engages your stakeholders.

Just like your hospitals, everyone is a stakeholder in our building. We need employees to take a vested interest in the bigger picture, so treat them like stakeholders. When you create an environment in which “jobs” are regarded more like “personal investments,” employees will show up with passion, productivity and focus, with an end result of an employee family that is happy and driven and a company that is profitable.

Treating employees as family and stakeholders isn’t driven by money. It just happens to return a yield that allows us to keep doing great things for our employees and customers. Here are four ways healthcare leaders can develop a culture that breeds engagement along with insights from leaders of some great healthcare facilities on how they apply some of these practices to their own facilities.

Be transparent. We earn the trust of our employees by being active in creating opportunities to get their ideas and by reporting on our company’s financial performance regularly throughout the year. Town hall meetings are an effective medium for communicating this information so that staffers can ask questions. Getting on the floor and interacting in their realm is powerful. Whether our performance is good or struggling, we own up to it, and let employees know in person how they can help impact the situation.

According to Alan Channing, CEO of Sinai Health System in Chicago, being visible among all levels of workers improves transparency. “The other thing we’ve worked at is being really visible with the front-line caregivers. Each senior leader has a week on call and is required to round throughout the organization. I’m not on that call schedule, but I’m here almost every weekend walking around. When I don’t come, they say...where have you been? We miss you. Most of the 3,000 employees feel like they have a personal connection with the leadership of the organization,” he says.

Anthony Armada, CEO of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., says allowing employees a way to provide input is critically important. “Give them multiple opportunities to share their input and have the transparency to get back to them and let them know what you did with their ideas. If people believe their voice is heard, they will be more engaged. For example, we have leadership webinars and every associate can participate. We have open forums and town halls that encompass every shift. I still do midnight shift rounds every quarter. This type of consistency is important. It can’t be a flavor of the month. I get love letters from some of our nurses when they can’t be there at midnight shift rounds but they have some ideas they want to share,” he says.

Share the successes. From new clients to awards, any company success provides an opportunity to further engage our employees. After winning a “Best Place to Work” award, we celebrated by renting a limousine and driving to the presentation luncheon with ten coworkers who had either been nominated by their peers to represent the company or won an internal recognition contest. As we were riding back to the hotel in the back of the limo, one employee looked at me and said, “This is the proudest day of my life.”

What does that mean for me as a CEO? I have secured an employee who is delivering top-notch services to clients and who will commit long-term to the company. Best of all, I’ve been part of someone’s life in a meaningful way. What would the same engagement from hospital staffers mean for the experience the patient receives? Improved HCAHPS scores? How well the patient follows post-discharge instructions? Celebrate the people in your building. When coupled with the partners and resources that are driven by both compassion and technology, you’ll create a patient experience that delivers levels of care you didn’t know existed.

“How do you recognize people that are doing well? First it has to be genuine. Second, it should be unexpected,” says Melody Trimble, CEO of Sparks Health System in Fort Smith, Ark. “I ask people when they start with us to fill out a survey to tell me how they like to be recognized. I’m a big card person. Everyone tells me I should have stock in Hallmark. I am a giver. I need to be a millionaire because I would have so much fun doing things for other people. Then I have to encourage people to do the same thing I do. I ask them to tell me the last time they wrote a card or recognized someone.”

Focus on the single thing employees do care about most. It’s not salary. There are few things that do more to endear an employee to an employer than taking care of what matters most to them — their family. At BerylHealth, we aim to include families at events like family field day and “Breakfast with Santa.” Our company magazine, “Beryl Life,” is specifically designed to be read by family members, and even has content for kids. What resources and efforts are part of your hospital’s plans to address what’s most important to your staff?

You don’t have to outspend your competitors on salary to be the industry leader. Treating employees as stakeholders and focusing on culture delivers more significant value, satisfaction and, most importantly, engagement, than salary and benefits could any day.

Prioritize smiles. It sounds simple. And from a senior leadership level, it most likely sounds silly to think that something like “prioritize smiles” is an applicable business practice. But healthcare is a tough environment to work in. Every person who interacts with us is sick or in need. (Most of the time, both apply.) By putting a priority on creating opportunities for happiness as a regular part of our work, employees bond as real people and create a better foundation to deliver an outstanding experience.

“If employees and physicians are happy, you’ll get an increase in volume. If you increase volume, you’ll find a way to decrease cost. With that, you’ll increase margin and be able to invest back in employees,” says Mr. Armada.

At Sparks Health System, fun is celebrated formally each quarter. “Every quarter we try to do something fun. We had 2,000 easter eggs and 350 kids here for the hunt. And, every month, I do birthday celebrations…I say to them...do you want to have $3 or $5 more, or ‘do you want to have a little fun?’ We’re going to have fun,” explains Ms. Trimble.

Put your employees first and you’ll see that creating a culture focus can bring happier patients, higher quality care, fulfilled employees and a better bottom line.

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