Level-up the patient experience with cultural sensitivity and empathy: 4 tactics from Sinai Health's Dr. Airica Steed

The patient experience is an important aspect of healthcare delivery and it takes a complete culture shift for organizations to truly put the patient first in all processes and touchpoints. But the shift is necessary to improve quality and perception of care.



Patient-centered care is especially crucial for health systems delivering care to underserved and at-risk populations, as the disparities in access to care and other services is stark. Airica Steed, EdD, MBA, RN, has spent her career focused on bringing the patient experience front and center in healthcare.

"Patients and families don't see the separation or divide between the quality and experience of care; it's bundled in the same world from their vantage point," said Dr. Steed, who is now the executive vice president and COO of Sinai Health System in Chicago. "We are promoting high quality outcomes, high reliability and great hospitality as part of our experience, and they are all living in the same vein from the patient and family point of view."

The health system cares for a high number of patients in the LatinX and Black communities, and a key aspect of its patient experience work is focused on eradicating healthcare disparities that exist in those populations. "We are striving to keep people well directly in their communities to avoid the need for hospitalization," said Dr. Steed. An example of the patient-centered initiatives Dr. Steed is currently leading includes adopting a new surgical robotics platform as a convenient option for virtually scarless surgery. She is also leading the charge to expand the health system's reach in vulnerable communities through telemedicine.

Here, Dr. Steed outlines the baseline of what patients should expect from their healthcare experience.

1. A convenient experience. "There shouldn't be a situation where patients have to wait for communication or care," she said. "Patients should not have to wait for care transition or follow-up. The speed bumps in the road for the patient experience should never happen; it should be our goal as the executives and care deliverers to provide the ideal experience to every patient."

Dr. Steed and her team are designing the protocols and processes that limit inconvenience and workflows without wait in them. She is also focused on perfecting communication so the care teams engage with family members directly and deliver instructions in a way patients will be able to follow.

2. A consistent experience. "Healthcare should always be seamless and completely consistent," said Dr. Steed. "Patients should receive the same message and care during their time at the hospital and then be transitioned to the safe care environment that they came from."

Consistent communications, workflow and customer-centric patient experience starts with leadership and requires a culture change. "You need leadership, accountability and ownership of the patient experience so it is consistent every step of the way," said Dr. Steed. "There is a sense here that we are really driving toward a common goal and I'm going to hold the organization accountable to ensure that our goals are met."

3. A personalized experience. "Patients should not feel like a number; they should not feel like someone who is forgettable or lost in the mix," said Dr. Steed. "When I think of personalization, I think about the fact that we should be anticipating what the patients' needs are and then wrap our services around the patient experience to make sure they're heard, recognized and valued."

For Sinai Health System, personalization often means serving individuals from a vulnerable community. "A personalized experience means that we dive in and understand the unique aspects of the patient and relate on the various cultural and ethnic backgrounds so we can address their needs before they have to ask for them," she said. "We have a high percentage of patients in the LatinX population; we want to ensure that we have a staff that mirrors that population and speak the same language so there isn't a disconnect there."

4. Added humanity. "We need to put ourselves in the patients' shoes and identify how we can approach them with more cultural sensitivity and empathy," said Dr. Steed. "We can take efforts not only to treat the disease, but we can also treat the person and bring humanity back into the fold. We want to reduce suffering and anxiety as a way to remove barrios and deliver a holistic type of care experience."

Oftentimes bringing more humanity into care requires understanding the behavioral health issues patients have and how their background contributes to their overall health and wellness. "It's about thinking beyond the circumstances that brought the patient to the hospital to understand the circumstances that caused them to seek out care," said Dr. Steed.

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