What Northwell Health's got cooking to create patient rave reviews

Sven Gierlinger, senior vice president and chief experience officer at New York City-based Northwell Health, discusses patient pain points, the disconnect in patient experience and what healthcare can learn from the hospitality industry.

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

Q: What is the No. 1 challenge facing healthcare chief experience officers?

Sven Gierlinger: We have a disconnect between how we measure for patient experience and how patients actually view their experience, and I'll give you an example of that. Typically, the measurement is done in a very episodic way, where somebody is an emergency department patient and when they go to the ED, they get an ED survey, and they have a visit to one of our physicians a few weeks later and they get a medical practice survey about that visit and about how the physician was. They get admitted to the hospital, maybe they have surgery, and at the hospital visit, they get a specific survey. It's all in slices, and it's not measuring how was your overall experience with the institution.

Also, we don't have really good tools of getting real-time feedback from patients where we can still do something about it. There are tools out there, like hourly rounding, etc., and we are using those, but probably the biggest issue is the view across and entire experience and that's especially important for a large integrated health system like ours, where we have all those services that connect the continuum of care.

Q: How do you plan to tackle it?

SG: We are tackling the issues that are potential pain points for patients, and so we actually have a massive initiative on the way. We are calling it our consumer access redesign project.

We find that we get great results and great feedback and data from our patients about the actual human transactions. Our patients are very satisfied with the care they are receiving from the doctors, we have very high scores in that category, and also with the nursing care they are provided with in the hospitals. But what's difficult for them is billing, for example, or how to get your medical records — so all the underlying processes, everything that is outside of the hospital room or the exam room.

Our job is to make the entire experience, from A-to-Z, effortless. We have to take the friction out, and we have to make it easier for people to navigate our system.

There is a lot of stuff I can't speak about yet because we are in the middle of that project, [but] it's about how we connect technology and create an experience where the digital experience is seamlessly woven in with the physical experience or the human experience. If you think about the airline industry, for example, you don't call anymore to make an airline reservation. You can make that on your phone. The human experience is when you board the plane, inside the plane with the flight attendant or maybe you have to call the help desk number or the reservation number for something, those are human experiences. But you are weaving in and out of digital and human experiences, and you don't even realize it anymore. And that is the same thing we are building in healthcare.

Q: What are some of the untapped opportunities to improve patient experience today?

SG: On the hospital side, there is still an opportunity to focus on the areas of hospitality and create facilities that are more user-friendly and more hospitality-focused and hospitality-minded. It's where we can learn a lot still. Something that we just launched a massive effort around is to improve food in our hospitals. Food in healthcare is seen as a necessary evil, it's something that we have to do, we have to feed patients, so let's do it as cheap as possible and let's not focus on the health and wellness aspect or the quality of food.

We actually have made food quality and thinking of food differently a major initiative in our organization. We have hired a chef from the hotel industry, who was a chef at the Plaza Hotel for 14 years, and he is completely redesigning the way we deliver food.

And I think this is an untapped opportunity because I've spoken about that at conferences and done presentations around it, and it always gets a lot of attention.

Q: What are some key goals you hope to accomplish before the end of the year?

SG: One of our goals on the inpatient side is to improve the star ratings of our hospitals, which are partially based on patient experience as well outcomes and safety, but experience is a key part of that. We have strategies around how to improve that and to get all of our facilities to a minimum of four, or, hopefully, to a five-star CMS star rating level.

Q: How do you see the role of the chief experience officer evolving in the healthcare field over the next five years?

SG: For one, I see every healthcare organization will have somebody responsible for patient experience. Depending on the size of the organization, that may be a shared responsibility [with another role]. There may be various titles, whether chief experience officer or vice president of patient experience or director of patient experience, but every institution will have a dedicated role for that.

A growing trend or understanding that patient experience and quality and safety are linked together, and there may be some trend or overlap in those roles or those areas will come together more closely. And the same is true for employee experience. I know some colleagues that have responsibility over patient experience and employee experience because so much of patient experience is based on an engaged workforce. You need an engaged workforce to deliver high-quality care and safe care as well. So those are the three elements that are very connected.

More articles on patient engagement:
Viewpoint: Patient narratives should be part of medical education
6 global health threats for travelers this summer: Physicians weigh in
Telehealth pediatric visits more likely to rate 5 stars when parents get antibiotics, study finds


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