It's not all about the patient, Vidant Health CXO says

Julie Kennedy Oehlert, DNP, chief experience officer of Greenville, N.C.-based Vidant Health, discusses why improving team engagement is the accomplishment she is most proud of, the rise in provider burnout and why the CXO role can no longer focus solely on the patient.

Editor's Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What is your proudest moment/achievement as chief experience officer of Vidant Health?

Dr. Julie Kennedy Oehlert: My proudest moment is receiving the results of our latest team engagement survey. Our health system has embraced a holistic strategy for experience that is focused on both team members and patients and the relationships they have. We believe that patient experience is driven by team experiences and that designing with the intention of love is our best strategy for all future successes. Me, the health system CEO and chief HR officer were together when our engagement results were revealed. All entities' engagement improved! Manager effectiveness improved! Physician engagement improved! Recognition improved! How joyful to see our team members responding to our strategy!

My proudest personal moment happened while I was doing a focus group in one of our community hospitals with a nursing team. The focus was on nurse retention, and the question was 'share something that would make you leave our health system.' A very experienced nurse manager looked right at me and said, "If you left, I would leave. I love where we are going right now. You love us, and we love you."

What chief executive would not be moved and honored for a team member to feel like an executive-level leader loved them? I will never forget that exchange. It will forever remind me what is important to our team members.

Q: What is the biggest threat to provider experience today? How do you think it can be tackled?

JKO: My opinion is that the biggest threat to our caregivers is lack of meaning in work, burnout, disengagement — whatever term you use. Our healthcare environment has become, for many, frustrating, without joy and overregulated so that the relationship between care provider and their patient is not honored or valued. Our care providers have many tasks that make it difficult to connect with their patients and families and enjoy their time as a human providing care to another human — which is why they entered a caring profession. When care providers become burned out, their empathy levels are at risk and this is a sad downward spiral.

I believe our way forward is to focus on the 'human-ness' of healthcare … and affirm value for the healing relationships that team members have with each other and with their patients.

Q: How is Vidant Health planning to take patient experience to the next level in the next few years?

JKO: We do not focus just on patent experience but on the relationships within our culture and believe that we will not achieve high levels of positive patient experiences without ensuring that our team members have high levels of positive work experiences. We will continue with this holistic focus, so that our work environments are compassionate for everyone.

With the current external environment in the U.S., we will also focus with great intent on safety of the work environment, knowing that the worry of an unsafe workplace does not allow for team members, patients or visitors to experience a healing environment. We will also place great value and effort on diversity in the workforce, which we feel will improve our team engagement as well as other healthcare outcomes.

Q: In what ways do you think your role will change over the next five years? What excites you most?

JKO: Currently my role as the CXO includes strategy to address both patient and team experiences, equity and inclusion and workplace well-being, as well as leadership for marketing and communication for the health system. I also have operational responsibilities for hospitality, environmental services, food and nutrition services and language access services.

I think my role as well as anyone who holds the CXO role will evolve over the next five years as experience-as-an-imperative continues to evolve. A CXO can no longer merely focus on execution of patient-facing tactics, but must be able to assess culture, relationships and work collaboratively with other executives and disciplines to address and transform the work culture holistically. This is the most exciting part of being a CXO — the potential to fashion the role and be involved in its metamorphosis.


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