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How UCHealth champions patient experience

Echo Vogel, patient experience director for UCHealth’s southern Colorado region, is much like the character in the children’s book The Little Engine That Could. The story about a female underdog who achieves the most unlikely and improbable of victories is a metaphor for determination—and Vogel’s story shows how her optimism and hard work paid off to launch UCHealth’s Patient Experience Champions program.

UCHealth is a network of 12 nationally recognized not-for-profit hospitals and 150 owned and affiliated clinics extending throughout Colorado. As Colorado’s only integrated community and academic health system, UCHealth serves 2.7 million unique patients through learning, healing, and discovery. Their mission focuses on improving lives in personal ways through human connection—the emphasis of its Patient Experience Champions, or “Champs,” Program.

UCHealth boasts more than 600 Champions throughout its system. That’s about one for every 50 employees—a remarkable feat.

When Vogel had been in her new patient experience role for 90 days, she organized a three-ring binder full of information targeted at educating frontline staff about how to develop Patient Experience Champions. While the organization was investing a lot in laying the patient experience groundwork for leaders, executives initially didn’t understand the value of leveraging frontline staff. But having previously worked in registration, referral, and scheduling at an outpatient clinic, Vogel knew firsthand the opportunities that lay in front-facing contact with patients.

“It took almost four years and seven or eight pitches of the Patient Experience Champions Program to get a yes, but when we did, we started a pilot—and we haven’t looked back since,” she says.

With that “I think I can” mindset, the organization started with a dozen Patient Experience Champions in a clinic and now boasts more than 600 Champions throughout its system. That’s about one for every 50 employees—a remarkable feat.

Patient Experience Champions Program Goals and Objectives

The concept of the UCHealth Patient Experience Champions Program was to find employees who could be role models for patient experience and were committed to creating a positive ripple effect within the organization. The program’s goal was to have those frontline Champions join a 60-minute meeting with patient experience leaders each month to engage with patient experience themes and return the results to their departments.

UCHealth patient experience leaders explain that strategic goals are built around patient education and the development of Champions every year. To that end, they’ve used various tactics, like book clubs focusing on positive psychology. This year, they plan to offer education around the positive intelligence that many physicians and nurses are gathering.

Originally, all meetings were in person. Because the goal was engagement, they didn’t want people calling in to listen while doing other things. When COVID hit, they pivoted online and found they could still sustain the Champions’ energy, commitment, and engagement through real-time meetings. They’ve had 300 people on a call before, which captures comments, emojis, and applause—and offers people who normally would have to speak up in a big auditorium a chance to share comments differently without losing the energy in the room.

“It’s not just us talking to them, but learning from each other, no matter where you are within this system”
~Windie Her, patient experience manager for UCHealth’s Metro Denver region.

“It’s not just us talking to them, but learning from each other, no matter where you are within this system,” says Windie Her, patient experience manager for UCHealth’s Metro Denver region.

Maxwell Shaw, patient experience manager for UCHealth’s Metro Denver region, says the Champion meetings easily have the most participation, energy, and enthusiasm of any meeting he’s been a part of. During COVID-19, he remembers that some leaders routinely canceled meetings—but that they experienced major pushback if they canceled the Champions meetings. He thinks this fact speaks volumes about the impact of the Champion meetings.

“Ultimately, it helps employees reconnect to their ‘why,’” he says. “We solicit feedback after each meeting and consistently get, ‘Don’t change. Things are perfect. We love this approach.’ We’ll get some helpful tips, too, but it seems, going on a few years now, that this is still resonating with folks who have been part of Champs for a long time.”

Patient Experience Champions Application Process

UCHealth uses a Microsoft form application that details the requirements and what’s expected of a potential Champion. On the logistics side, it explains that candidates are expected to attend a monthly meeting, then complete at least an hour of improvement work on their unit, sharing the information gathered at the meeting. It also explains how to be a role model on the data side by understanding what all the HCAHP and real-time scores mean—being able to pull the data, share it and update unit boards with it. The form also discusses the qualities that make a good Champion, for instance, consistently demonstrating the ability to achieve, be accountable and be a go-to leader for patient experience.

When an application form is submitted, it automatically identifies the prospective Champion’s manager and sends a message to that manager, indicating the applicant’s interest and requesting that the manager review their application and discuss the time commitments with them. The manager can then either approve or deny the application. If they approve it, the new Champion is automatically sent a welcome message, saying, Hello, welcome to Champs! We’re so glad you’re here.

Next, UCHealth holds an orientation with a program overview explaining the mission’s vision, values, and experience pillars and how they relate to the responsibilities of each Patient Champion. After a staff member is selected to be a Champion, they’re automatically put on a distribution list so they can start attending the program’s monthly meetings.

Ideal Champion Profile

UCHealth would ideally like to have one or two Champion representatives in each department throughout its system, especially the patient-facing departments. Champions sometimes stay on for a year or two, then hand off the responsibility to another team member.

Leaders say that in a large ED, four champions are a more appropriate number. Some groups may have four or five Champions join, but they will rotate through the meetings. This has been a great way to manage multiple interested people and ensure they each get a fair amount of time.

Managers and directors benefit by having a Champion on their team. They have a go-to resource to roll out different initiatives and they can be updated on their unit’s current scores status. The benefit for the Champion is that they intrinsically enjoy the work—though coordinators say the program also provides a great stepping stone for future leadership roles.

“We see many charge nurses, techs and people who want to gain a little more formal leadership ability join a program like this…They learn different presentation skills as they bring information to their team and can demonstrate that they’re ready to take the next step in their career.”
~Maxwell Shaw, patient experience manager for UCHealth’s Metro Denver region

Monthly Champion Meetings

Typically, meetings start with a climate-setter activity, then go into “leading extraordinary experience” modules, before sending off members with activities to implement.

For example, a recent meeting discussed how to increase joy and connection at work. The next month’s meeting focused on teams, and offered different engagement activities where members could chat or come up with a word cloud as they talked about the joy of teams at work.

Next, leadership shared powerful research on the impact of having a more connected team with a singular purpose. Drawing on that research, patient experience leaders used activities to teach members about their importance and implied opportunities. For example, they asked about what barriers could lead to UCHealth not having a strong team connection, and what were some positive actions they could take that might improve that. A discussion followed about how a simple act of kindness could make a difference. In the end, each Champion had an action item for homework, such as engaging in a specific activity with their team.

As follow-up, UCHealth patient experience leaders send out one-page weekly huddle notes with a built-in activity related to that month’s topic to provide ideas that Champions can implement in their units.

“Our ultimate metric is the score,” says Andrea Salvo, manager of patient experience at UCHealth. “There’s a story behind each score, but we are graded on scores. After our first year in my region, we could pull up those areas with Champions, and they were all at or above goal in each focus area.”

Patient Feedback Management

The most compelling way UCHealth uses NRC Health to support its Patient Experience Champions program is by using comments from patient surveys to help guide its program and goals. Patient experience leaders say that the best thing about NRC Health is the ability to see common themes—and then show that data and information to their staff.

“We can talk about joy in work, and our patients feel it. And now, here are patient comments from NRC surveys saying that when we have joy in work, we have a stronger team, and our patients see that,” Her says.

For instance, when they noticed patients commenting on employees not introducing themselves, they made an effort to educate their ambulatory team around that. Once that was done, the situation flipped, and comments started coming back that specifically named team members: Emily came in and explained something to me, or Andrea was awesome!

Her says those comment themes help bring issues to the forefront and bring the patient’s voice back into staff education. And employees also use comments—not only to recognize opportunities for change, but for recognition.

“I love it when our champs come back to us and say, ‘Look what I did,’” Her says. “They’re just so excited about it. I love when leaders partner with them, allowing them to create things in their own way and encourage and help them grow as individuals.”

UCHealth has also had many champions come back and share during meetings. “They’re the ones who are highlighting and showcasing what they’ve done, which is pretty awesome and amazing to see,” Her says.

“We can talk about joy in work, and our patients feel it. And now, here are patient comments from NRC surveys saying that when we have joy in work, we have a stronger team, and our patients see that,”
~Windie Her, patient experience manager for UCHealth’s Metro Denver region.

Patient Experience Champion Success Stories

UCHealth leaders say the feedback they’ve gained through their Patient Experience Champions Program has been a gift. It has also made them better at receiving and giving feedback. In one case, a supervisor saw a staff member struggling; while the employee was dedicated to their patients, they struggled with team communication and were ready to leave the organization because of it. The Champion introduced the staff member to a module on empathetic communication and had a crucial conversation with them, suggesting that they try to absorb the information. The struggling employee learned a lot, ended up staying, and felt it had been a positive use of their time.

A case manager shared that Champion education had allowed them to identify their unconscious bias toward unhoused patients. The case manager was able to tell their story to their team, and as a result, the group discussed acknowledging the bias and moving forward as an organization to better care for that patient population. Another patient experience manager was once in a DE&I meeting where attendees were asked what kinds of cool things they’d done that month, and a Champion brought up the most recent meeting she’d been in. Movingly, she cried while expressing what the meeting had meant to her.

“I think there’s a ton of that across our system, because of our Champions,” Salvo says.

Future Plans for the Champions Program

One way that UCHealth’s patient experience leaders have protected the Patient Experience Champions Program is by focusing the team only on patient experience. Vogel explains that because of the program’s success, leaders often want to pull the Champions together to discuss other initiatives, but protecting the group’s mission is critical. “That one great person in a clinic can’t be a Champ for 10 things, or nothing will get done,” she explains. “We’ve really had to say no strongly. We’ve expressed that if people want a committee of Champions for a specific thing, they need to look elsewhere or build their own.”

Future plans include developing longitudinal score data tied to departments invested in the Champions program, and creating a Champions Academy for enthusiastic people who want to do more.

UCHealth’s Patient Experience Champions join a virtual meeting.

“How do we take Champions to that next level, and maybe build the pipeline and leverage those motivated for just patient experience—really bring them up and motivate them to do more?” Her asks. “In the future, maybe we’ll have an academy of passionate people we can start training to be future facilitators.”

Whatever the future holds, Vogel knows they will be successful because of the power of unifying frontline Champions. When she thinks of the number of attempts that had to be made to get the Champions program up and running, her takeaway is never to give up—because often, today’s no is tomorrow’s not yet.