How Atlantic Health created a healing culture, improved patient experience

The addition of four simple words to Atlantic Health System's mission statement did more than just make the mission statement longer: It sparked a change that ultimately improved the patient and staff experience.

In 2010, the five-hospital system based in Morristown, N.J., modified part of its mission statement to read: "Deliver high-quality, safe, affordable patient care within a healing culture."

With the addition of those four words, Anne Rooke, RN, MSN, member of the system's board of trustees and Bill Neigher, PhD, former vice president of system development and chief strategy officer, set to work to turn those four words on paper into a healing movement within the system.

Healing, according to Dr. Neigher, has been described as a "process of trying to restore the balance between physical health and spirituality." It is something that goes beyond routine healthcare and involves things like music and laughter. He quotes a phrase that forever changed his life: "You can heal on the day that you die."

"I thought that was a tremendously profound way of looking at the combination of [healing and treating]," he says. "Healing is forever even if biology is inevitable."

To put that sentiment into more actionable terms, Atlantic Health chose to define a "healing culture" as the following:

  • Sharing responsibility for healing with patients, families and the community;
  • Demonstrating respect for diversity through cultural competence;
  • Embracing synergies among physical, emotional and spiritual healing connections; and
  • Recognizing optimal well-being, prevention and health promotion as parts of the healing process.

To bring this definition to life, Atlantic Health formed the Healing Culture Council which first met in 2011 and is tasked with implementing programs and starting initiatives to make the healing culture visible and operational. It is still in action today, and in four years of existence, it already has left quite a legacy.

How it works

For the council's first meeting, Ms. Rooke and Dr. Neigher invited 40 people from all levels of the organization and from care sites across the system. They extended invitations to those who Ms. Rooke calls the "movers and shakers, those who might be able to move the initiative forward," and asked each one of them to invite a like-minded colleague.

Now the council boasts more than 100 members who meet 10 times a year, either in-person or virtually.

Ms. Rooke and Dr. Neigher point to the following reasons as to why the council has enjoyed success at Atlantic Health:

  • Buy-in from the top. As with most projects involving large-scale change in healthcare, leadership buy-in is needed if it's going to have legs. That was one of the keys for the Healing Culture Council. "Having a CEO who embraces [change] and is a believer has really helped push this forward," Ms. Rooke says. "Having the CEO come to meetings and reinforce what we're doing…really made a difference."

    In addition to getting executives onboard with the council's mission, Ms. Rooke says it's also important to involve the board early on in the project. Board members may not have a traditional healthcare background, but they can relate to patient experience because they or a family member have been a patient at some point, she says.

  • Involvement from all levels. Employees from all over the organization who serve in different capacities are part of the Healing Culture Council, which has contributed to the council's success. "When you're creating the council, make sure it's representative of all different levels of the organization. Embrace the diversity of your employees and encourage grass roots engagement because it's the staff that ultimately owns and follows-through on the initiatives," Ms. Rooke says.

    In the same vein, it is also important to value everyone's opinion equally regardless of their title. "There was a respect for anybody's good idea," Dr. Neigher says.

  • Focus on action. A common question asked in the council is "What can we do tomorrow morning?" according to Ms. Rooke. Members identify barriers to what would prevent a project from moving forward and work actively to overcome them.

"Everything we do is focused on the healing of patients, visitors, families and staff," says Ms. Rooke.

Successful programs

AHS - Gratitude Graffitti IIIn its four-year history, the Healing Culture Council has championed and spun off major initiatives that have drastically improved the patient — and staff and visitor — experience across the system. Just a sampling of the successful initiatives is highlighted below.

24/7 visiting hours. According to Dr. Neigher, this idea came from a president of one of the system's hospitals. "The first reaction was, we can't do that," he says.

Ms. Rooke echoes Dr. Neigher in that the first reaction from many was that keeping our doors open 24/7 would be impossible, even though it would be what was best for patients and visitors. She says the council met a lot of resistance from groups like security and nursing.

After meetings, discussions and an article penned by a member of the council, the 24/7 visiting hours is now an Atlantic-wide AHS Pet Therapy - Sam in new hatpolicy, with the exception of some specialty units. "Even people who thought it was going to be terrible, they have embraced it," Ms. Rooke says.

Soothing Paws pet therapy. The pet therapy program at Atlantic Health is an example of an existing program that the Healing Culture Council expanded despite initial pushback. "We had a lot of resistance from medical staff and infectious disease [professionals], but this is one of those things we just did and asked for forgiveness later," Ms. Rooke says.

And the program — which involves bringing in trained therapy dogs and bunnies that visit patients and staff — has been wildly successful. "It offers physical and emotional relief for all of the staff and patients," she says.

Gratitude Graffiti. This experiment originated as part of the council's Year of Gratitude in 2014. As part of the initiative — which was launched with one of Atlantic Health System's local community partners — visitors, staff and patients wrote with washable markers on hospital windows expressing what they were grateful for. According to Ms. Rooke, responses varied from things like "Grateful that I am cancer free," "Grateful for my life," and "Grateful to my physicians and nurses."

"The sentiments were so heart-felt and moving that for two months, we didn't want to wash the windows," she says.

While 2014 was the Year of Gratitude, this year is the Year of Community, with its own initiatives each month to build community and promote a culture of healing. Since it was such a success last year, the system is bringing back Gratitude Graffiti in November of 2015.

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