Being a patient experience leader is an exciting and daunting role. You are expected to address concerns and satisfy patients and family members while at the same time effectively collaborating with staff of every variety and position, including senior leaders—all the while creating the often elusive “culture of caring”. Undeniably, this role, in its many shapes and forms, is one of the most important in healthcare, since it impacts not only the patient and family experience but also financial health, clinical outcomes, patient and staff safety, risk reduction, employee engagement, and the overall culture of the organization.
Who are Patient Experience Leaders?
Formal patient experience leadership roles include Chief Experience Officers, Chief Medical Officer for Patient Experience, Directors of Patient Experience, Patient Experience Program Leads, Patient Advocates, and many other related titles. However, informal patient experience roles belong to every leader in the organization at every level, including the CEO, physician leaders, directors, supervisors, project leads and many more. Plus, there are informal leaders in every department as well—opinion leaders and coaches to whom others look for guidance and support.
This article focuses on the leaders in roles who are specifically charged with improving patient satisfaction scores—which is essentially every leader in healthcare today.
For Formal AND Informal Leaders: What Does Leadership of the Patient Experience Require?
What does it take to be successful in this calling? It takes GUTS! GUTS is an acronym for:
GO for it
Strategy planning and execution
GO For It!
Patient experience leaders have to be willing to GO for it. The role is not easy. There are times when your requests, accountability measures, and conversations make other people feel uncomfortable. You will meet resistance, and often unavoidably be involved in other people’s dramas. This is an inherent part of the role. In fact, these are signs that that you’re moving people in the right direction! To be effective as you GO for it, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself, because a healthy you will better lead the way calmly and steadfastly without paying a personal price.
Understanding and being clear on what is occurring for patients, family members, and staff are critical to knowing where to focus, when to push, when to let up a bit, and how to proceed. Effective patient experience leaders gain understanding by analyzing and synthesizing hard data on the one hand and relying on soft, “gut-based” data on the other hand. Helpful sources of hard data include patient satisfaction scores broken down as specifically as possible, patient comments—both positive and opportunities for improvement, and information gained through evidence-based rounding. Soft patient experience data includes over-all assessment gained from rounding, the general “feel” of the department or unit, witnessed interactions, and elevator/hallway conversations either overheard or participated in firsthand.
Employee-based hard data sources are the annual employee engagement survey, other employee surveys, evidence-based rounding, retention rates, attendance rates, time-to-fill vacancy rates, number and quality of applicants, and patient data directly tied to employees. Soft employee data includes overall observations, gut-feeling while in the unit/department, casual conversations, data obtained from conversations with other leaders, and story-sharing during workshops and forums. Inclusively, this data paints a clear picture of current state, allows you to track growth, and is needed to effectively set measurable goals.
At this point you may be wondering why employee data is critical to patient experience leadership. Simply put, happy, engaged employees who feel cared about, respected and important are more likely to provide effective patient and family-centered care and do their part in ensuring a positive patient experience.
As busy as we all are, and with the constant deluge of daily “fires” to fight, it’s easy to get lost in the minutia and lose sight of one’s goals and real purpose. Therefore, it is a must to dedicate untouchable, scheduled time to gather, review, and dissect data to truly understand how people and the organization are performing. This time allows us to find pain points, identify successes, and wisely choose where to first focus our efforts. Since our time is limited, it’s critical to set specific, achievable goals, including easy wins. Once you make gains, you can set additional specific goals. Most organizations cannot effectively take on all their pain points at once and achieve success. After you’ve done the initial work it is still necessary to dedicate time to staying on top of gathering on-going data, checking progress, making course adjustments, and planning your next actions.
Strategy Planning and Execution
Effective patient experience leaders are strategic. Per the MacMillan Dictionary, strategic planning refers to the development and preparation of processes that are “carefully planned in order to achieve a particular aim” (MacMillan, n.d.). Think about great patient experience as the toothpaste that comes out of a toothpaste tube. The most effective manner to get all the toothpaste out is to apply equal pressure across the tube pushing the paste toward the opening. If only the middle of the tube is squeezed some of the paste hangs out along the sides. This would be akin to an average, or even poor, patient experience where effort was made along the way but overtime or in certain areas attention was lacking, i.e. equal pressure was not applied and resulted in paste being left along the tube. Obviously, patient experience involves multiple interactions and is not a simple as squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. The point is, your strategy must get all the factors aligned and pushing the patient experience forward to be effective. A culture focused on creating positive patient experiences assures that every patient, every interaction, every time consistently happens. There are five specific strategies that need to be addressed for the patient experience leader to surround the organization with the support needed to create the culture of accountability for caring.
- Invest in an aligned, supportive and championing executive leadership team. It is critical that EVERY executive team member see patient experience as primary to the success of the organization. They also need to understand how their role, personal success and team’s success depends upon the quality of the patient experience. While this might seem obvious, in practice, many executive team members lose sight of the fact that healthcare is a business dependent on the level of customer satisfaction as a primary measure of the organization’s success. Putting this in place has a trickle-down effect because in subsequent fashion, executive team leaders hold directors accountable to what they see as most important. In turn, directors hold managers accountable. Thus, accountability, time commitments, allocation of resources, and the push for success hinge on the level at which the executive team truly aspires to provide a consistently great patient experience as necessary to their business and mission fulfillment.
- Ensure highly skilled leaders. These leaders must create a culture of accountability by (a) individually displaying attitudes and skills that advance the organization’s mission and values; and (b) holding their team and fellow leaders accountable for meeting high patient experience standards consistently. Leaders that display the “right stuff” answer the questions in the Language of Caring® Leader’s Accountability Self-Check (2015) with a resounding yes.Highly skilled leaders know that caring communication is vital for an organization to provide a consistently great experience for patients and families. They also know that caring communication is the cultural foundation of organizations known as being great places to work. Therefore, they are committed to doing their part to create a culture of accountability for it.
- Partner with Human Resources. HR is too often overlooked. As a patient experience leader, you may not be responsible for Human Resources processes. However, they affect your efforts in a significant way. Having a strategy for partnering with Human Resources to ensure their processes and practices are aligned with increasing employee engagement and providing a great patient experience is critical. These processes and practices include hiring staff with the right attitude and behavioral skills, providing new employee orientation about a caring culture and caring communication, on-going caring communication staff development, leadership development related to the traits highly skilled leaders exhibit (as mentioned above), recognition for caring communication use, and progressive discipline practices that ultimately lead to termination of staff and leaders who fail to perform in ways that produce the results you want. Additionally, Human Resources is your partner and will provide you with employee engagement, retention and hiring data to monitor your strategy’s impact on employee outcomes.
- Sustain progress and momentum. Generally, new efforts come with lots of support, bells and whistles, and enthusiasm. This can wane once the novelty wears off—especially once the hard work begins. Most patient experience efforts focus on changing behaviors of staff, which is much more difficult than changing processes. It takes commitment from leaders to continue to assess staff, provide feedback, and to hold people accountable for these new behaviors. Until the behavior is habit, without leaders driving accountability for the new behavior, old patterns tend to re-emerge and short-term gains diminish. The patient experience leader needs to ensure that their team and the organization maintains not only short terms gains, but also builds the momentum needed for continuous improvement.Momentum is necessary to keep moving forward. John Maxwell, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (2007), said there are five truths about momentum—a. it magnifies success, b. shrinks problems and obstacles, c. energizes, d. enhances performance, and e. makes change easier. This powerful book accurately depicts momentum as a series of small successes that build over time. Wise patient experience leaders know that paying attention to small successes is important in keeping the energy and enthusiasm needed for the long haul. Additionally, patient experience leaders pay attention to these small successes using them to inform and guide next moves and course corrections. Keeping your focus on the progress you’ve made, while not losing sight of the big picture, is important. So how do you keep momentum and get staff to keep the big picture in sight? Through the stories you and others tell about your organization.An organization’s culture is quite easy to identify—merely listen to the stories the staff tell daily to their customers, each other, their spouses, and their community. If the stories you overhear are ones of frustration, bitterness, negativity, lack of respect, etc. you can bet the culture lacks caring. Conversely, if people are excited and talk about how they enjoy their work, how they make a difference to each other and their customers, the way their supervisor shows respect for them, and are prideful of the product they deliver that speaks volumes. Interestingly, the idea of culture, a.k.a. “who we are when no one is looking” can be changed by altering the stories that are told. To maintain your momentum forward and to move your culture to where you want it to be tell stories you want repeated. Publish them, share them, ask for them, focus on them, get others to start paying attention to the good you want to spread and overtime it moves things! After all, would you rather listen to Negative Nellie complain about the things you’ve heard countless times before or hear a story about how Caring Carl felt knowing he made a difference to a patient or fellow co-worker? Stories breed themselves so make sure that your breeding stock is of high quality!
- Have a long-term over-arching, focused strategy. This is the foundation for all the others. As mentioned earlier, organizations cannot address all pain points at once and be successful. When organizations try to do this, they inevitably split time and attention so that, at best, they make several small improvements— but at a cost to the people working hard to achieve success. People feel initiative fatigue because of keeping so many balls in the air at once. This is very discouraging to you, and it discourages the teams trying to meet diverse expectations that involve dividing their attention. Smart patient experience strategists plan to address all of the organization’s pain points over the long haul. They identify the points early on, and then plot out a phased approach and timeline that is manageable. Then, by putting in place measurable goals, the patient experience leader and the teams involved can see growth and celebrate milestones so staff know their efforts are making a difference. Tackling one area, making significant growth, and seeing positive outcomes are invigorating and enthuse people to jump on board to tackle the next big focus.
Wrapping it Up
This is a powerful time to be a leader in healthcare. There is no greater time than now to embrace the role in creating an organization that provides top quality medical care in an environment of not only stellar patient and family experience, but also exceptional employee engagement. All it takes is a little GUTS and a lot of elbow grease!