First Things First: Treat Employees Right

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I first met Paul Spiegelman about five years ago when he asked me to become a member of the advisory board for his company, Beryl, now BerylHealth. The company is in the patient experience arena, collecting data and generating insights into relationships with the most valued people in healthcare — customers. As I got to know Spiegelman better and became more familiar with his organization, I was impressed with not only him as a businessman but also with the fact he was concerned about values, a passion we share.

His philosophy is a simple one: Treat your employees with dignity and respect and they in turn will treat customers the same way. Lots of executives talk the talk, but Spiegelman practiced that philosophy with his people, and I was quite taken with it as I saw it pay off first-hand. Every time I had the occasion to interact with Beryl employees I was struck with their dedication and enthusiasm. I realized I was witnessing a management philosophy in action, one that made eminently good sense but also translated into high productivity and exceptional sales. Chuck Lauer

In other words, Spiegelman's philosophy was a winner as far as I was concerned and made all the sense in the world. From time to time he and I get together, including at dinner in Chicago a few months ago. He was excited about a new book he was working on about hospitals and how they treat patients too often in a less-than-appropriate manner. So I was excited to get a copy of that book recently, entitled "Patients Come Second."

I knew the title was deliberately provocative, but it isn't just the familiar assortment of patient horror stories. Instead it is an elucidation of the philosophy Spiegelman practiced at BerylHealth. He has co-authored the book with Britt Berrett, the president of 898-bed Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Berrett shares the belief of how people should be treated, and is a passionate advocate for excellence in healthcare.

In the introduction to the book there is a letter from a woman Spiegelman identifies as "Wendy L.," who after hearing his presentation at the Beryl Institute Conference on his book in progress, wrote him to question it's title. "I believe your book title is very destructive and invites reviews and blog posts that will be unnecessarily negative."

Spiegelman includes his response: "While the title may seem controversial, once you read the book (and I hope you will), you'll see that we are all after the same thing: improving the experience for the patient. There was once a popular book called 'The Customer Comes Second.' That title could have provoked the same response, but it revealed an important truth that spoke to people in the business world. Let's face it: Employees in most companies get treated as second-class citizens. If that's the case, how can we expect them to treat customers well? The same is true for employees in the healthcare field."

For the rest of the book, Spiegelman and Berrett take us on a journey that shows how through enlightened leadership and total engagement patient-centered care can be truly achieved.

The theme of the book might best be summarized by a quote the authors received from Ron Swinfard, the CEO of Lehigh Valley Health System in Allentown, Pa., who referenced the challenges of the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act by saying: "I really don't give a damn what model the federal government inflicts on us to deliver care. As long as we as providers care about our patients and one another, we'll be successful. People will beat down our doors to get here, because they'll feel it."

The authors also quote Wayne Lerner, the former CEO of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago: "The future will not be centered around the hospital experience. It will be the entire patient experience, which includes more than hospitals. Organizations that used to be competitive will now need to work together. Just add that to the list of challenges.”

Spiegelman and Berrett agree. "Today, patient experience is a top-three kind of issue, ranking even higher than cost reduction," they write. "Yet three-quarters of healthcare organizations have yet to define what patient experience means to them, let alone set aside money to address it. The more progressive executives who have tried to tackle the challenge head-on, however, have gone about trying to solve it in a backward manner. They have plowed money into adding more beds or developing new technology such as electronic medical records, all while over looking the obvious solution: investing in their employees."

In a discussion of healthcare employees and their sense of mission, Dane Peterson, the CEO of Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, is quoted: "The overreaching mission of a healthcare organization is an easy one to communicate — most employees and physicians choose their profession based on the mission. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, so even those employees who work in roles not found only in healthcare, and even those of us who came to healthcare later in life, can get excited about making a real difference in the lives of others."

Tony Armada, the CEO of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., adds this: "A mentor of mine once shared a very simple equation with me: If physicians and employees are happy, you'll get an increase in patient volume. If you increase volume, you'll find ways to decrease cost. With that, you'll increase margin and be able to invest back in employees."

Many of the lessons in "Patients Come Second" are not necessarily original but are reminders of how important the basics are when people engage with others. Good manners, a smile, a sense of humor, total commitment and focus and the willingness to leave egos at the front door are all part of a basic formula for making people feel special so that they can make others feel just as special as they do. Healthcare leaders have many things on their plates but nothing is more important than the welfare of their patients. That means that if patients are to be treated well the very people who are engaged with patients have to be made aware of how special they are in the scheme of things.

Healthcare is changing, but giving patients exceptional care should be the prime goal of any healthcare workforce and the leaders who are responsible for inspiring their employees every day. Spiegelman and Berrett have done a great job of providing a very workable plan for achieving excellence in patient care. "Patients Come Second" is a great read and worth the time of anyone committed to achieving excellence in patient care.

Chuck Lauer (chuckspeaker3@aol.com) was publisher of Modern Healthcare for 33 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.

More From Chuck Lauer:

Chuck Lauer: Not Just Another Day
Chuck Lauer: Trust
Chuck Lauer: Keep it Simple
Chuck Lauer: The Shameful State of Our Hospitals

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