The patient experience is the bedrock of any healthcare practice. It's the cornerstone of loyalty. Quality experiences are what keep patients coming back.
But creating those experiences demands rigor and consistency.
Nobody knows that better than Cherie Lytle, the Patient Experience Manager at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, and Kari Kunze, the hospital’s Radiology Diagnostics manager. They led a two-year initiative to perfect their Radiology Department’s care and service.
Here are their five essential tips that will help YOUR facility perfect the patient experience.
Keep Your Brand’s Promise
The first step toward a great patient experience? Cherie sums it up neatly: your facility must keep its promise.
“You need to be asking: what is your organization's promise?” Cherie says. “What do customers expect from you?”
Your brand promise is the cumulative result of your organization’s marketing efforts and its history with the community. It informs your patients’ expectations.
Once you understand that promise, it’s imperative to keep it. If you don’t, you leave customers feeling disoriented, and maybe even outraged.
Cherie raises the example of Disneyland.
Disneyland promises an immersive, magical experience for children, where they get to see their favorite characters come to life.
“So what would happen if you saw an actor dressed as Cinderella, with a cigarette in her mouth?” Cherie asks. “You’d be traumatized! That's not Cinderella, right? That’s a broken promise from Disney.”
Disneyland would never allow that to happen, and neither should your organization.
Incongruities like that will cost you customers. A facility that promises convenience in a television ad can’t have excessive wait-times; an imaging clinic with extensive marketing materials depicting friendly staff members working with children shouldn’t have surly radiologists.
“We have a lot of opportunities in everything we do every single day to uphold the promise or to break the promise,” Cherie says. “For us, it comes down to making the right choices.”
Look at your marketing materials for a sense of the image you project to the world, then ask yourself if reality consistently aligns with that image. If not, you may have some work to do.
Perfect Your Non-Clinical Interactions
Clinical know-how will always be a part of a health brand’s promise. But these days, that’s not enough to win loyalty from patients.
As Cherie puts it, “They expect us to have medical expertise. It's why they are with us. It’s non-negotiable. But we don’t get a gold star for it.”
Expertise is the minimum point of entry for practice. The modern patient expects so much more. They want value and they want convenience in addition to quality. Most importantly, they want to feel that they’re being respected as a human being. That puts pressure on every occasion when staff members interact with patients.
“Every single interaction matters,” Cherie says, “From when they park their cars to the time in the waiting room. Not just the medical interactions, not just the time in an imaging suite. Every single moment is important.”
Are you getting these moments right? Is it easy for patients to book an appointment? Will they get a friendly greeting when they come through the door? If patients dispute a bill, what kind of attitude can they expect from your staff?
These interactions may not directly affect care. But they’ll stick in a patient’s mind – for better and for worse.
Get Everyone On Board
Keeping patient interactions consistently excellent will always be a daunting challenge. Kari points out that it won’t happen unless your staff feels personally invested in the effort.
“It’s constant work every day, every person, every time,” Kari says, “and we need to make sure that the team knows they have the power to make or break the patient experience.”
Everyone in your organization is extremely busy. They have to juggle many duties throughout their days. If the patient experience isn’t at the top of their mind, it will slip down the list of their priorities.
“That’s why it‘s essential to have that buy-in from everyone,” Kari says, “It can’t be one or two people. I can’t do it from my office and Cherie can’t do it from hers. It takes a village.”
Kari says the key is to build ownership and a support structure. She recommends walking frontline staff through the stages of the patient experience, and then explaining how everyone fits in.
“That’s how we made the team feel engaged,” Kari says. “Now everybody knows how to treat a patient the moment they walk into the radiology department, who’s responsible for what. And they all know that the support is there – we can rely on each other for help.”
Your patient will come into contact with many people within your organization. One broken link in the chain is all it takes to ruin a patient experience.
Sweat the Small Stuff
To show the importance of little details, Cherie likes to talk about a plant.
The plant has seen better days. It’s large, but neglected. It’s been under-watered, so it’s brown and wilting – perhaps close to death.
That wouldn’t matter so much, except for where the plant is – in the waiting room for a hospital’s oncology department.
The ailing plant sends a terrible signal to patients. It’s a grim metaphor for the experience they can expect.
“Okay so what’s the message here?” Cherie asks. “Maybe it’s ‘Gosh, they can’t even water the plant and they’re supposed to be saving my life!’”
Details like that plant can dramatically affect a patient’s opinion of a facility. So can the amount of eye contact staff members make with patients or the way their personal belongings are stored.
“These are subtle things,” Cherie says, “They seem small but they make a difference to our families and they make a difference in that perception of care.”
Make sure that the little things in your facility send the right message to your patients. Are your picture frames crooked or straight? Is the upholstery on the waiting room chairs in good repair? Is the parking lot well-lit?
Inconsequential? Not to a patient, so it shouldn’t be meaningless to your department either.
Respect Patient Preferences
Illness and injury can leave people feeling helpless. Their vulnerability robs them of a sense of control – and they’ll be immensely grateful if you can restore it for them.
That’s why Kari insists that radiology staff ask about preferences.
“We want to show that in our interactions with family we are doing everything we can to honor their preferences. We’re asking ‘would you prefer to have a blanket today for you child’s exam?’ or ‘does your child have a nickname that they prefer to be called?’”
On the surface, these choices might appear trivial. But this deference shows respect for the family’s wishes. It broadcasts compassion and empathy.
“These people are coming to us in the worst moments of their lives,” Cherie says. “It’s our responsibility to give them back just a little sense of control.”
Patients can’t choose when they get sick or hurt. But if you can give them choices about their care, you will help them cope with the fear and uncertainty that illness can bring. They’ll be grateful for it.
Remember: Your Patients Have Options
Cherie and Kari agree that facilities must honor their patients’ choice. It’s the most important thing an organization can do to improve the patient experience.
“We don’t like to say it in healthcare, but the fact of the matter is that all of our patients and families are customers,” Cherie says. “They’re consumers, and they’re making choices. If we want our organization to be sustainable in the future, we have to reckon with that.”
Today’s patients have more options than ever. The Internet has empowered them with information, and they’re not afraid to walk away from an experience they don’t like.
So make your facility the best choice available. Perfect the patient experience. Build a culture of service at your facility – and your patients will keep coming back.
Looking for more insights from experts like Cherie and Kari? Sign up for one of the many webinars hosted by Cassling throughout the year!