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Improving patient experience by engaging your employees

When I was a chief experience officer, I often told front-line leaders to stop focusing on patient experience and invest their energy in their employees. Healthcare organizations (HCOs) have long been focused on improving patient experience. They have set up elaborate systems to listen to their patients and families, redesigned their incentive programs to align with this commitment and organized teams to improve the experience they are providing.

As the leader accountable for patient experience, I watched as leaders around me struggled to understand how to respond to the voice of their patients. Teams desperately wanted to do the right thing, but were burdened by the complexity of the system and by competing priorities that overwhelmed their days. They wanted to understand their patient experience data and respond in a way that would change the experience their teams were providing. However, they felt trapped by the inadequate information provided by traditional surveys and frustrated that nothing they seemed to do had any impact.

When they would call me to their offices to review their data and make recommendations of what they could do (remember, they all desperately wanted to do the right thing!), they were often surprised by my response. Instead of pressuring them to study that data and continue to search for answers within the feedback directly from patients, I would often encourage them to stop looking at their patient experience data and instead focus on their employees.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was not telling them that the voice of their patients and families did not matter. In fact, my intention was quite the opposite. My hope was that if leaders could feel a little relief from the burden of work and turn their attention to the wellbeing and engagement of their people, they would ultimately see the dual benefit of improved employee experience leading to improved patient experience.

Does improved employee engagement lead to improved patient experience?

Well, the short answer is a resounding yes. Research clearly shows a correlation between the two. Study after study report that engaged employees lead to higher patient satisfaction, not to mention higher quality care and stronger financial margins. A recent study from nearly 150 VA medical centers over a three-year period shows that higher employee engagement correlated with higher patient satisfaction, lower nurse turnover and better call center performance.

The infamous article from HBR in 1994, titled Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work, has tremendous value in HCOs today. It’s quite simple actually: when you invest in taking care of your people, they are more productive and committed, resulting in a superior experience for your customers (ahem, patients) - and ultimately leads to strong financial performance. We don’t need more research to tell us these things are inextricably linked.

However, patient experience and employee experience are often separate initiatives today.

For as long as I have been leading experience work and for as hard as I tried to link these strategies, measuring the experience of our patients and the experience of our people has been siloed. We haven’t looked at the data in a comprehensive manner, much less gained insight in a way that drove improvement. The fact is, disconnected efforts often result in disconnected results.

There is tremendous opportunity to create an authentic connection between your patients and your employees. It takes cultural transformation and a commitment to activate your employees, and the result is a better experience all around.

See how the world’s leading healthcare companies improve staff and patient experience with Qualtrics

Susan Haufe // Healthcare Chief Industry Advisor

Susan has over 20 years of experience building customer-centric cultures. Before Qualtrics, she served as the Chief Experience Officer for Yale New Haven Health and the Administrative Director for Patient Relations and Service at Virginia Mason Medical Center. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Texas Christian University, Master’s in Health Administration from the University of Washington and serves on The Beryl Institute Solutions Advisory Board.

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