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Patient experience defines quality of care

June 4th, 2014

by Gary S. Kaplan

What's important to you when you receive medical care? Clinical skills and outcomes are essential of course, but for many of us, how hospitals treat us--our overall experience--is equally important.

At Virginia Mason in Seattle, our strategic plan says we put the patient at the top. What does that really mean? The plan illustrates our commitment to patients at the highest level. Each of our organization's more than 5,600 team members has a critical role in how that commitment is translated into action.

From striving for the best clinical outcomes and the safest care to providing extraordinary service, there are countless ways everyone affects the patient experience. Even team members who don't usually have direct patient contact can make a difference, whether it's offering to help someone find their way in a building or keeping the facilities attractive by picking up litter they see in lobbies and hallways.

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In 2001, when we created our strategic plan and illustrated it as a pyramid, we knew the patient should be at the top but we didn't fully understand what this could mean. With the plan, we embedded a permanent strategic focus on the relentless pursuit of quality and safety. In the years following, we saw incremental improvements in patient satisfaction scores.

By 2007, we realized that quality and service were closely connected. The following year we introduced mandatory service training for all team members, which helped us develop a shared understanding of how to improve the patient experience.

In 2009, we adopted experience-based design, an innovative method that helps us better understand patients' feelings and concerns. This gives us new ways to listen to our patients and their family members as we look for opportunities to further improve service and quality. Along the way, we held another round of service training for all team members. This was followed by training on respect for people because we know how we treat each other affects how we treat our patients.

Earlier this year, we asked our team members to reflect on how they can affect patient experience. Managers distributed patient experience cards, giving each person in their department a simple, visual way to commit to how they will make a difference. The card says, "I make the patient experience better by" and asks every team member to fill in the blank, describing his or her role in providing the perfect patient experience.

Patient experience spans the continuum of care, from scheduling an appointment, to the day of visit, to checking information online and receiving follow-up phone calls. We know how important it is to show empathy while providing care. We've also learned how important it is to align care with our patients' personal goals and values.

What's important to you when you receive medical care? Your answer is possibly the same answer your patients would give. Have you asked them?

Gary S. Kaplan, M.D., is chairman and CEO of Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle. He also is a practicing internal medicine physician at Virginia Mason and current board chair of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

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