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Caring in a crisis: Insights from three prestigious experience leaders

Like no other event in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic completely transformed American life. And perhaps nowhere was that transformation more visible than in the halls of the nation’s healthcare organizations.

Leaders and staff had to respond rapidly to the crisis’s demands, in some cases totally upending their ordinary workflows. Their nimble decision-making saved countless lives.

Amidst all that change, however, leading organizations also discovered something worth preserving: a meaningful, empathic, authentically human care experience.

Maintaining a sense of human connection is a challenge for health systems in the best of times—let alone during the century’s worst public-health emergency. But a select few organizations managed it, by rededicating themselves to the guiding principles that already informed their compassionate approach to care.

Here are three ways that leading experience executives reaffirmed the centrality of the patient experience, in the wake of the crisis.

Dealing with fear

Ken Kozielski, Vice President of Customer Experience, Orlando Health
Empathy is foundational to a human-centered vision of care. It’s also a skill premised on listening, taking the emotional measure of the moment, and crafting a care experience that meets patients where they are.

For the peak months of the COVID-19 outbreak, the defining emotion of the moment was—for obvious reasons—fear. In April, NRC Health’s surveys found that 88% of consumers reported high levels of concern about the coronavirus pandemic, 48% of them said they believed that “everyone is at risk” of catching the disease, and 54% of households had deferred essential care for fear of contagion.

Addressing these fears would be a critical component of health-system strategy during the pandemic. It would also be extremely delicate work. Leaders like Ken Kozielsky, Vice President of Customer Experience at Orlando Health, found a response that was both circumspect and compassionate.

“As the crisis was unfolding, we hosted a webinar with around 100 of our ED physicians,” he says. “We asked them if they were spending more time treating the disease, or treating fear. The response was unanimous. Fear, misinformation, and uncertainty were far and away the more challenging concerns.”

“Fear, misinformation, and uncertainty were far and away the more challenging concerns.”

– Ken Kozielski
Vice President of Customer Experience, Orlando Health

Recognizing their organization’s unique role of authority within the Orlando community, Kozielsky and his team took every step to allay these fears, including:

  • Launching a specially dedicated COVID-19 hotline, as a single source of truth for concerned consumers
  • Sourcing iPads for isolated inpatients who needed to communicate with their families
  • Working with businesses to develop best practices for reopening their doors to the community

These steps, among others, dealt frankly and directly with patients’ concerns, and thereby helped to relieve them. They certainly aided a return to normal functioning, both in Orlando Health’s facilities and in the community at large.

As Kozielsky puts it, “it’s not enough to merely keep COVID out; we must give people the confidence to come back in.”

Taking care of each other

Alan Dubovsky, Chief Patient Experience Officer, Cedars-Sinai

Perhaps the most resonant lesson imparted by the COVID-19 pandemic was a lesson in solidarity.

Cooperation played a critical role in curbing the damage wrought by the disease. “Flattening the curve” was something all Americans did, together. Though grim statistics often dominated headlines, poignant stories of neighborly aid and community support were a major part of the coronavirus story in this country.

As it was in the nation at large, so it was within health systems. Clinical and support staff went to extraordinary lengths to preserve their patients’ well-being. Just as important, they also took the time to care for each other. Their collegial attitude is partly to thank for bringing them through the most stressful and dangerous episode in their careers.

Alan Dubovksy, Chief Patient Experience Officer at Cedars-Sinai, saw this firsthand, and was part of the team that architected a strategy of mutual support among the organization’s staff members.

“Our focus is on reassuring our staff that they work in a safe environment, and that we’re all in this together.”

– Alan Dubovsky, Chief Patient Experience Officer, Cedars-Sinai

“In addition to the safety of our patients, our focus is also on reassuring our staff that they work in a safe environment, and that we’re all in this together,” he says. “This helps us continue to offer high-quality care, while making sure patients are comforted by engaged and compassionate staff members in their encounters.”

To this end, Cedars-Sinai has taken a number of steps to leave their staff feeling protected. First among these was a large shift toward digital delivery, which reinforced the social-distancing rules that kept the pandemic at bay. To help staff transition to this new mode of communication, the organization offered specialized coaching and scripting tools for virtual care, which helped make these digital encounters feel personal and meaningful.

Some appointments, however, couldn’t be shifted to telehealth. For these, Cedars-Sinai developed a series of public-health strategies that stressed physical distance, temperature checks upon entering the facility, and guidance on how to conduct routine exams without compromising safety.

At a time when up to 60% of consumers (according to NRC Health studies) believe that healthcare facilities present an elevated risk for coronavirus infections, these explicit measures were a comfort to staff and consumers alike.

Reimagining delivery

David Riddle, CPXP, Administrative Director of Patient Experience, Harris Health System

Telehealth has long been an idea whose time has come. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the technology may have finally found its moment. A crisis demanding social distancing has since stoked consumer appetites for digital care delivery.

According to NRC Health’s research, 60% of consumers are somewhat or very interested in having phone-call appointments with their providers; 57%, in screen-conferencing; and 51%, in using a dedicated online portal. These are the highest levels of telehealth interest that NRC Health’s surveys have ever uncovered.

Still, recognizing a need for digital services is one thing—actually implementing them is another. To meet the sudden spike in demand for telehealth services, Harris Health had to act fast. David Riddle, the organization’s administrator of patient experience, explains how they effected an unprecedented transition to long-distance delivery.

“The impact of COVID-19 galvanized our industry in its commitment to caring for consumers,” he says. “It inspired the greater use of new technologies to meet the needs of patients in the post-COVID reality. Now, a record number of Harris Health patients can keep up with their healthcare needs in the comfort of their own homes.”

“The impact of COVID-19 galvanized our industry in its commitment to caring for consumers.”

– David Riddle, Administrator of Patient Experience, Harris Health System

The sheer scale of Harris’s transition has been dramatic. By the end of the year, Riddle projects that 46% of its nearly 800,000 ambulatory-care visits will be conducted via a proprietary telemedicine platform.

Even more impressive, rates of home delivery for medications escalated from 1% of patient households to 77%, in just two months. This amounts to nearly 1.5 million prescriptions being delivered in the coming year.

Many leaders will acknowledge that changes like this are likely to arise within their own organizations in coming years. But few could imagine effecting such a transformation in months. In this case, for Harris Health, the COVID-19 crisis spurred them to develop a satisfying—and future-proof—customer experience.

Reinvention and renewal

There’s little doubt that for healthcare leaders, this pandemic marked the most challenging period in their careers. Few events have demanded such continuous and rapid reinvention, or such constant adjustment, as did the COVID-19 pandemic as it evolved.

But as the stories above reveal, successful crisis response did not always depend on reinvention. For some leading organizations, the pandemic simply inspired a renewed commitment to the bedrock principles they’ve always followed—principles of compassion, of empathy, of human understanding.

The work changed. But the vision behind it did not. And for that, we—and patients everywhere—are inexpressibly grateful.

For more on this topic, please check out this earlier article from top patient experience leaders on how health systems are striving to improve the patient experience during this COVID crisis.

Additionally, you won’t want to miss attending the virtual 26th Annual Symposium on August 24-25 where you can network with these and other patient experience leaders to hear their stories.