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How to help pediatric care teams bring delight to their patients

Pediatric care is a balancing act.

On the one hand, pediatric providers must always act with parents in mind. As any parent can attest, having a sick or hurt child can be the single most traumatic experience of anyone’s life. In the thick of a medical crisis, parents need sincere providers who can assure them that their child is getting the best possible care.

But children need something different. Like adults, they feel scared when they’re ill or injured. But unlike adults, they don’t have the emotional maturity to manage their fears.

Providers have to offer them a little more. More reassurance. More caring attention. And if they truly want to see children thrive, it helps to bring something extra—a little bit of whimsy. Maybe even some fun.

Parents and children alike appreciate when staff can complement clinical skill with a sense of fun. Done well, it shows that staff are well-rounded, and not too busy to consider children’s emotional needs.

Taking clinical care seriously is second nature for pediatric organizations; after all, caring for sick children is the core of their mission. But making care playful? Fun? That’s where many organizations and staff may struggle.

The good news, though, is that most pediatric staff earnestly want to give children the best possible experience of care. Here are five tips to empower them to do that.

  1. Don’t contain—inspire

Pediatric care tends to attract a special type of employee. These are people who feel a real connection with children, and who want to give them an experience that will delight.

The worst thing a leader can do? Squash these employees’ potential.

Yet in hospitals around the country, this is exactly what happens. “Scripting” requirements leave caregivers cold. Long and legalistic codes of conduct make them afraid to be spontaneous. They may feel sapped of the warmth that they would otherwise bring to their work.

Leaders should strive to unleash their staff’s empathic instincts.

Scripting, for example, can be replaced with communication models that provide a framework for effective communication and some room for personality. Effective frameworks produce more authentic and sincere connections, rather than robotic encounters.  Staff also appreciate feeling trusted to make independent judgments about their patient interactions.

A few well-known communication models are:

AIDET for introductions: Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, Thank you

LEAD for service recovery: Listen, Empathize, Apologize, Do the right thing

FORD for small talk: Family, Occupation, Recreation, Day (How’s your day?)

Conduct codes can also be supplemented with an emphasis on delight. Many winning child-oriented businesses—from Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, IA to Disney—put delight as an explicit organizational value. They encourage employees to use their intuition, to improvise, to go out of their way to connect.

Those are values that serve any service business well. They’re especially effective at a children’s hospital.

Finally, organizations should celebrate staff who delight. In pediatric organizations across the country, there are nurses who sing to patients, doctors who dance, housekeepers who play video games. They should share these stories, and make role models of staff who take it upon themselves to delight. Others will follow in their footsteps.

  1. Don’t give orders—be a role model

Of course, it’s never enough to dictate delight from on high. “Do as I say, not as I do” will never inspire real change. If leaders want employees to bring whimsy to their work, they should start by embodying that whimsy themselves.

This can start small. A playful accent, like a cartoon tie, socks or brooch, can ratchet down the rigidity of the typical C-suite uniform.

Likewise, occasionally stooping down, at kid level, to talk with kids in public places like halls, cafeterias, and elevators can encourage other staff to do the same.

These little gestures add up. Over time, they will help to show employees that delighting children is a real organizational priority, and will reassure them that they have permission to follow their instincts.

  1. Don’t fear—trust

Leaders may worry: What if my staff take the fun too far? What if they cross the line between fun and reckless?

That’s a natural concern. But there are steps leaders can take to minimize that risk, and feel better about encouraging spontaneity.

First, in training, they can model the kinds of behaviors that they want to see from their staff. Showing them what a heartful staff-to-child interaction should look like will help cultivate a sense of what’s appropriate.

Teaching what’s not appropriate starts with honest dialogue. Leaders should engage staff in conversations about worst-case scenarios, drawing fears out into the open.

The goal of these conversations should be getting to yes—not stopping at no—while of course balancing safety and the needs of other patients and families. These candid conversations will help to transform unease and concerns, while giving guidelines for initiating safe, responsible fun.

  1. Don’t scold—coach

However, there are bound to be missteps. As with any new policy, employees may cross a line as they learn to bring delight into their work.

Often, it’s not the misstep itself, but how leaders and managers respond to it, that will make or break the initiative’s success. Harsh rebukes or punishments will cause a culture of fear to assert itself among staff. And fear is never conducive to fun.

Instead, in response to an employee’s transgression, leaders should recognize the chance to do some coaching. Frank, personal guidance—delivered warmly and with encouragement—will steer better decision-making in the future.

Even better, it will show the employee how much they’re valued and respected. Done well, coaching signals that leaders respect the employee’s judgment, and want to see the employee succeed.

  1. Don’t drain staff—delight them

Finally, leaders must recognize an important truth: It’s hard for unhappy staff members to delight.

Like all healthcare workers, staff in a pediatric hospital face extraordinary stressors. Whirlwind paces, high stakes, long working hours—these all contribute to an atmosphere of urgency that can leave employees utterly drained.

That’s why leaders should do all they can to infuse fun and delight for staff. Department parties, potlucks, after-work outings, and participation in philanthropic events are a few ways to show appreciation for staff and bring fun into a stressful occupation.

These things are not the magic wand to solve problems such as staffing and technology fatigue. They do, however, show staff a level of compassion. That can make the tough days a little easier.

Delighted staff, in short, pass the delight on: the well-being of patients is inextricably linked to the well-being of staff.

Big ideas for small patients

At first blush, these five points may look daunting. And they do, in fact, amount to sweeping changes for some pediatric organizations.

However, these are manageable steps for any organization to take. NRC Health is dedicated to helping empathic organizations achieve them. That’s why we’re hosting our annual Pediatric Collaborative.

Happening at Dayton Children’s Hospital on March 5th, it will featuring a keynote presentation from Louie Gravance, a long-time trainer at Disney who brings a wealth of experience in delight-centered culture shifts.

At the collaborative, pediatric hospital leaders will not only learn how to operationalize the ideas above, but they’ll also be able to exchange ideas with their most forward-thinking peer organizations around the country.

To register for the Pediatric Collaborative, click here.