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Igniting Human Understanding: Toya Gorley

How a car ride home left a lasting impression and inspired a career

As a young girl, Toya Gorley was already able to see how interacting with healthcare professionals impacts not only the patient, but the patient’s entire family. Raised by her grandparents, Toya Gorley learned at a young age that singing in the car on rides home from a doctor’s appointment meant that things had gone well for her grandmother. Silent rides, on the other hand, were troubling.

“Sometimes we would go to a doctor’s appointment and sing in the car on the way home, or stop at McDonalds.,” Gorley recalls. “I assumed those were good appointments. Then, there were other times when we would leave appointments and drive home in silence. So, as a child, I made the connection between an appointment that went well or one that did not go well, and the reaction it caused us both on the way home.”

These early experiences were foundational to how Gorley approaches her work today with hospital leaders, nurses, and front-line care providers to help them understand what matters most to the patients they serve. In fact, she believes that patient experience, a field she has worked in for the last 15 years, is her calling.

The healing power of Human Understanding

Gorley remembers another experience that directly influenced her career path as she got older. “I was in high school, my grandmother was in the hospital, and I would take the bus to visit her after school,” she recalls. “She had beautiful long jet-black hair, but she would wear it tightly curled, because a woman of her age ‘didn’t wear long hair.’ I walked into her hospital room that day and someone had parted her hair down the middle, made two braids, and put on two big pink bows. My grandmother’s body language was small, and she slumped in her chair. I knew that she was humiliated by that hair-style. It wasn’t her. I immediately took the braids out and combed her hair the way I knew she liked it.”

“It’s one of those moments that’s just embedded in your brain forever,” Gorley adds. “I imagine the person who did her hair thought they were doing something really kind. But if they knew her, they would never have styled her hair that way. I think the person either didn’t take the time, or didn’t have the time to get to know her. Even kind gestures can be misinterpreted if they aren’t personalized.”

It was moments like these that inspired Gorley to focus on the patient experience. Her own experience connects very closely to NRC Health’s philosophy of Human Understanding, because, as she says, “it is about that individual and what matters to them.”

The heart of Human Understanding

Throughout all of Gorley’s career in patient experience, she has helped healthcare leaders interpret and use patient data.

She explains the importance of understanding and addressing what matters most to each patient as a unique person and remembering that every person’s experience extends well beyond the healthcare setting. Simply put, she says, connecting with patients as unique individuals revolutionizes the care experience for everyone.

Along with the patient experience, Gorley has recently become involved with the employee experience. If employees don’t feel engaged, respected, valued, or heard, she says, they are less likely to participate in the practices that are known to make a difference for patients. So recognition and reward must be treated as an essential part of the patient- and family-experience strategy.

“It is critical that we are using patient feedback to lift up care providers and highlight the great work that they do all of the time, then use that positive patient feedback as a way to inspire change,” she says.  Adding that her primary work in employee engagement is to build stronger patient experiences.

It's personal

Gorley believes that healthcare is emotional and that it’s important to understand and acknowledge everyone’s emotional context when they interact with healthcare professionals.

“Every single person you come in contact with in a healthcare organization can shape your perception of that experience,” she says.

She also stresses that everyone within an organization has a critical part to play.

“We determine what we’re not doing well through declining scores or not meeting unmet benchmarks,” she says. “Certainly, there are opportunities to improve, and I think that is an important part of the patient-experience discipline. But what we don’t talk enough about is all the great things we do well. There is an opportunity to really elevate the miracles that happen.”

Gorley began her tenure in patient experience at the Cleveland Clinic. She graduated from Baldwin Wallace University with a master’s degree in business administration, and earned a dual bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance from Miami University.  She strongly believes in empowering others at work and in her personal life. She now serves on the Board of Directors for her alma mater, the all-female Beaumont High School, where she recently delivered their 2023 Senior Day keynote speech drawing upon her experiences to encourage the next generation. Gorley lives in Cleveland with her husband of 21 years and their teenage daughter.

The Igniting Human Understanding series shares the personal experiences and passions that influence and shape our approach to humanizing care.

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