Engaging Staff to Improve Patient Experience

Finding effective ways to engage time-strapped employees and convey the importance of the patient experience is a challenging endeavor.
Patient Experience Staffing

Research has shown time and time again that high levels of employee engagement can translate to dramatic improvements in patient experience.  With workplace studies showing engagement levels hovering around the 30% mark, however, finding effective ways to engage time-strapped employees and convey the importance of the patient experience is a challenging endeavor.

Owen Dah, Owen Dahl Consulting
Owen Dahl, of Owen Dahl Consulting

But Owen Dahl, MBA, FACHE, LSSMBB, a medical practice consultant based in Texas, says the extra effort pays off in spades. I spoke with Owen about some simple ways to encourage staff buy-in and commitment and put the patient experience front and center in your organization.

Maureen: Owen, why are staff engagement levels so low? Don’t people go into healthcare to help patients?

Owen: I think they do, but it’s hard to remain focused on the patient with so many competing administrative burdens. Programs like PQRS and Meaningful Use that require a lot of documentation can make staff more task-oriented and procedure-oriented and less patient-focused. Staff are overloaded and, in many organizations, the culture doesn’t emphasize patients.

Maureen: Why is the patient experience so important? Why should we be encouraging staff to keep it top of mind?

Owen: First, we’re in a service industry. Your practice is a business and if your patients have a bad experience, they’ll go somewhere else. Second, pay-for-performance programs are compelling us to look more closely at patient experience by tying payment to it. And most importantly, patients are at the center of what we do in healthcare and it’s essential that we remember that. I think patients who are satisfied with their encounter are more likely to comply with treatment and in a lot of cases, those experiences will go a long way toward producing the health outcomes we are looking for.

Maureen: So what are the first steps?

Owen: It sounds simple, but managers need to talk about the patient experience and they need to do it a lot. It has to be part of every meeting and a consistent theme that’s repeated all the time. Leaders set the tone for the organization and define the culture by what they talk about. That means saying things like, “How did we do today?” “Did our patients have a good experience today?” “What could we have done better for our patients?”

I also think training and education play a huge role, too. For instance, through role-playing exercises at staff meetings, you can demonstrate what a good patient experience looks like and also discuss the impacts of a bad experience. Scripts tailored for specific situations, like an angry patient, can help staff to feel prepared to respond appropriately and sensitively. You can also cite the Golden Rule and ask staff, “How would you like to be treated at the doctor?” Those kinds of questions really help with reflection.

I’ve seen exercises like role-playing lead to infectious culture change. All of a sudden you see a lightbulb go off in an employee’s eyes and then you see them greet a patient in a completely different way.

Maureen: Are there other easy-to-implement strategies that you think are worthwhile?

Owen: The accreditation process for patient-centered medical homes requires a daily patient huddle and I think that’s a great way to get staff engaged. Staff get together for a few minutes each day to discuss who’s coming in, what their diagnoses are, and any potential issues or anticipated bottlenecks.  I recommend that practices include back-office staff, front-office staff and clinicians in these huddles because it helps everyone feel like they’re part of the mission and it helps get rid of siloes. I also think staff should have some latitude to make decisions that affect their work.

Maureen: You mentioned staff workload and administrative burdens. Can any progress be made without addressing those issues?

Owen: That’s an important point. Statistically, 85% of problems related to engagement are because of bad processes, not because of employees. I tell people to manage by walking around. Go to the location where work occurs. Watch the front desk. Sit in the reception area. Get a sense for what happens and why.

Once you’ve identified gaps, address them. That might mean moving the phone, taking some of the administrative load off of someone’s plate or introducing a better training program. In most cases, better processes will make a big difference.