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How this Virginia clinician continues to raise the bar on patient experience

Providing compassionate, trusted care to healthcare consumers is every clinician’s end game. Unfortunately, in this country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system—which has seen even more strain throughout the pandemic—the time clinicians have for actually doing that is very limited. According to a study published in the January issue of Medical Care, primary-care physicians spend an average of 18 minutes with their patients during one care encounter.

Despite the challenges of providing care in today’s continuously evolving landscape, healthcare workers across the country rise to the occasion day after day, bringing Human Understanding to every care encounter.

It’s these transformative individuals whom NRC Health recognizes with its Excellence in Human Understanding Award. This article is one in a series celebrating the achievements of healthcare workers who have been nominated for this award and had an outsized impact on patient care.

A 2021 finalist is Cindy Hennigh, a Nurse Practitioner at Sentara Healthcare, a not-for-profit healthcare organization serving Virginia and northeastern North Carolina with services in 12 acute-care hospitals, 10 nursing centers, and three assisted-living facilities.

Though beloved by patients and colleagues alike, Hennigh was initially taken aback by her nomination, wondering how she could possibly be deserving of the award and even asking, “If healthcare workers don’t show up for the world, who’s going to?”

But looking at what patients want in their providers, we see that it’s always rooted in the human elements. They want trust, empathy, communication, and quality time. They want to feel like their providers get them. And these are qualities for which Hennigh is known across the Sentara organization—qualities she has brought to each and every one of her patient interactions over 24 years in the industry.

“Our world needs more compassion and empathy right now,” she says. “We need more Human Understanding across the board.”

But what does human understanding mean?

NRC Health was founded with a vision to maximize humanity in healthcare. And over the last 40 years, the company has reaffirmed what most of us already know: Care encounters are more than just transactions, a provider’s role is more than just clinical, and behind every person is a story. Seeing the person and hearing the story behind their diagnosis—that is truly the essence of Human Understanding.

For Hennigh, this means asking three little words during patient visits: “Are you okay?”

“If you can teach clinicians to truly ask this question and give patients the time and space to answer thoughtfully, paying attention to their body language and to their eyes, that’s really seeing them,” she says. “It may take a few times of asking, ‘No, are you really okay?’ They’ll know if they truly are—but in that moment, you might be able to save a person’s life, emotionally or physically.”

Human connection is key to better care

During her care encounters, Hennigh wants her patients to see her as a human before seeing her as a clinician.

“When I go into my patients’ rooms, I really want them to feel a human connection,” she says. “I want them to know that I’m not standing above them, passing judgment or telling them how they should live their lives. I’m there to sit beside them, to listen with curiosity, to share my knowledge, and to help them optimize their health, physically and mentally.”

With consistently near-perfect scores across Hennigh’s quality and patient-experience metrics, a theme quickly emerged in her patient comments, showing how appreciative her patients are that she takes the time to sit down with them and actually explain their care, versus just writing a prescription and sending them on their way.

And while Sentara Healthcare typically receives great reviews and feedback across all markets, the Northern Virginia area where Hennigh is based is an especially competitive landscape, which underscores just how significant an impact she’s made on her patients and teams.

Building the future of healthcare, one patient at a time

Changing the status quo of care delivery is far from a one-person job. But sometimes, one person can light the spark that inspires an entire team of colleagues to come together for the greater good of patient care. Luckily for Sentara Healthcare, Hennigh is one of those people.

Alexa Osborne is Sentara Healthcare’s Director of Customer Experience, and the person who recommended Hennigh for this award. About her colleague’s service, she had this to say:

“At Sentara Healthcare, we always strive to recognize members of our team who are doing great work, which is why we nominated Cindy for this award. Her consistent empathetic presence makes such a difference and we see that come to fruition in more ways than one; one being the overwhelmingly positive patient feedback. Her demeanor inspires those she works with on a daily basis, as well as folks across the Sentara brand. Cindy embodies what our organization is all about—serving our patients—and her actions inspire all of us, each and every day.”

Congratulations to Cindy and Sentara Healthcare, for embodying the spirit of real, human care.