Your patient experience will never exceed your employee experience

A conversation with patient experience experts.

VP of Loyalty Strategy, Barry Kirk, and I had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation with a few dozen patient experience leaders from across the country. The venue was the Next Generation Patient Experience Conference, and the discussion revolved around the idea that a patient experience will never exceed an employee experience.    

We were gratified to find so many insightful viewpoints on this timely topic. The shift to value-based care is resulting in a more patient-centric focus, allowing them a much greater say in how and where their healthcare dollars are spent. If patients are now more like consumers, then healthcare employees are now more like customer service experts. This creates sizable challenges for the healthcare industry—particularly hospitals—but also sizable opportunities for those organizations able to put their patients first by putting their employees first.  

Here are some of the highlights from the session. 

How important are employees to the patient experience? 

On this question there was unanimous agreement, as 100 percent of our audience indicated the employee is a critical—if not the most critical—factor impacting the patient experience and patient outcomes. Almost every presentation at the conference addressing improving the patient experience centered on training, support or programs for shaping employee behavior. A presentation by the Patient Experience Institute even highlighted a patient experience model with the employee at the center. Yet surprisingly, no single presentation focused on the employee experience itself. 

Why does the employee experience receive so much less attention, when it’s widely believed to be so critical to the patient experience? 

The discussion around this question was much more divergent.   

  • We focus on what we measure. Because Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems is required by the government for funding, some of the participants felt this created disproportionate pressure on patient experience, in a way that reduced the emphasis on the employee experience. Even though the group acknowledged the role of the employee experience, several indicated executive leadership’s lack of support for employee programs as a limiting factor. 

  • More complicated to influence and understand. As each person is unique and there is a broad range of employee types within a modern healthcare system, participants viewed creating programs for diverse audiences and then determining how to measure the impact of those programs as a major challenge. One participant specifically noted that changing process is much easier than changing people, while recognizing people are just as important. 

  • HR in healthcare is tactical. Several participants indicated that HR, which is responsible for the employee experience, is focused on tactical issues like compensation, benefit management and recruiting. Many other participants indicated that HR was a good partner, but not leading in this area. About one third of the participants indicated they had some direct responsibility for the employee experience as it related to the patient experience. One shared they recently appointed a new head of patient experience and employee experience, who is also the head of HR. 

  • No clear owner of patient experience. Although many of the participants had some direct responsibility or influence, there was not a clear owner of the design, management or measurement of an employee experience strategy. Most acknowledged this was a gap in their organization, despite a recent survey indicating that more than 90 percent of healthcare organizations have a defined role responsible for patient experience. 

What is working well to improve the employee experience? 

Part of each of the discussion groups centered around what was working well to improve the employee experience. Here are a few of the ideas shared. 

  • The importance of listening. More than any other topic or conversation thread, the power of listening to employees produced results. Not only does giving people a voice produce a positive result with the employee experience (reducing turnover and increasing engagement), but employees are a consistent source of new ideas and feedback for improving the patient experience.

    Some participants talked about “diversified rounding,” as an extension of purposeful rounding—meaning everyone from medical staff to chefs to executives participated in patient and team rounding. This practice was identified as a great way to improve understanding and create empathy.

  • More frequent feedback. Traditional annual surveys do not provide timely information, and often that information is not actionable. People simply are not sure what to do with the data. Many participants discussed augmenting their feedback data with pop surveys or more informal but frequent information collection that could be shared more broadly and in real time.
  • Recognizing good behaviors. Although the mechanics are diverse, several participants shared stories of celebrating people and the behaviors making them successful. One healthcare system frequently tells stories about employees’ experiences as patients: humanizing employees, building empathy and highlighting successful behaviors.

    Another healthcare organization implemented peer-to-peer recognition and acknowledges employees on screens across the hospital. Several participants indicated they have recognition programs, but most indicated they’re not used strategically as part of driving patient experience outcomes. 

The consensus of the group was that the healthcare space is several years behind other industries in being strategic and purposeful in its design of the employee experience, even though it’s understood that the employee experience is critical to a successful patient experience. What’s needed are more clear examples in healthcare that demonstrate the impact to patient and financial outcomes in order to build support among a larger group of stakeholders. More progressive healthcare providers are starting to address this disconnect, but there’s a tremendous opportunity to apply best practices from other industries and significantly impact the patient experience and outcomes.