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Improve the patient experience in a pandemic? It’s possible. Lara Burnside, MHA, shows us how.

The work of caring for others’ health is uncommonly interpersonal, physical, and intimate. Ask a lot of providers, and they’ll tell you that this physicality is exactly what they love about their jobs. It’s the ultimate “in-person” industry.

If that’s the case, how can healthcare organizations sustain employee enthusiasm—and maintain an excellent customer experience—in the middle of COVID-19?

These were the questions on Lara Burnside’s mind. Burnside is the SVP of Patient Experience at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, Texas, and she observed right away the danger that social distancing posed to her team.

“A potential casualty of COVID-19 was our organization’s culture,” Burnside says. “What went away at the beginning of the pandemic was all the sustaining, fun, joyful stuff that kept us able to deliver the experience that our patients want.”

Burnside, however, was not about to accept these consequences lying down.

In a webinar for NRC Health, Burnside shared some of the techniques she used to find that sustaining energy and keep up the quality of customer care—even over a virtual call. Some of her best tips are included below.

  1. Build a (virtual) community

Without a physical place to gather, creating a sense of community can feel like a major challenge.  Most of the time, Zoom calls make a poor substitute, at best.

This is why Burnside recommends shaking up the format of a traditional teleconference.

“At JPS we’re used to having these highly engaging, Town Hall–style events,” she says. “My first question, when we made the move to Zoom, was how to re-create those events on a virtual platform.”

She has one big piece of advice: To keep people engaged, keep virtual events highly interactive.

That means cameras on (so you can see people’s faces), and switching up the format as often as possible. For her meetings, Burnside also constantly invites questions and commentary.

“This is not a lecture,” Burnside emphasizes. “Lectures give people permission to tune out. Structure what you’re trying to say in five-to-ten-minute intervals. Then move on to a break-out room or an activity. Keep people engaged.”

  1. Experience empathy

Empathy is the bedrock skill behind excellent healthcare customer experiences. It’s also, fundamentally, an act of imagination. The provider must be able to put themselves in the patient’s shoes in order to understand how they’re feeling, and respond appropriately.

What is sometimes less appreciated, however, is the importance of practicing that empathy with other staff members.

“Whether they’re your colleague or your patient, you need to get into the hearts and minds of the people you’re talking to,” Burnside says. “You have to understand their perspective.”

Empathy not only brings warmth to the patient encounter, it’s also a crucial component of organizational success. Co-workers who can’t empathize with each other are far less likely to support each other—and far more likely to experience burnout in turn.

But how to keep up the practice of empathy, when colleagues can’t see each other face to face?

During the pandemic, Burnside has been incorporating a simple empathy activity into her virtual sessions. She calls it, “When I say this, you think that.”

She asks team members to adopt the perspective of a patient, a provider, or any other stakeholder in the organization. Then she poses a sharp comment, prompting the listener to consider how it might make them feel.

Saying, “Patient satisfaction is down, and we need to do something about it,” for example, might prompt a provider to feel defensive. Likewise, if a patient hears a phrase like, “I’m sorry, but that’s just policy,” they would likely feel dismissed or unheard.

The goal is that by a deliberate exercise of empathy, health-system employees will learn to speak with compassion to patients and to each other.

“All of this matters,” Burnside says. “Words matter. We have to teach ourselves, over and over again, not to say things in certain ways, because it undermines the trust we’re trying to build.”

  1. Learn to listen

Creating a positive healthcare-customer experience is notoriously challenging in the best of circumstances—let alone during an unprecedented pandemic.

In the era of social distancing, many routine gestures of compassion just aren’t available. Smiles are hidden behind masks. Holding a patient’s hand is risky and fraught. And many service interactions happen behind a screen of plexiglass.

Cumulatively, these changes can make a care encounter feel cold and distant. But Burnside notes that, while these little things make a difference, they pale in comparison to a provider’s most important interpersonal skill: listening.

“Even now, when I boil down almost all of the complaints we receive, the one common factor I see is that, if we’d just been listening a little better, the complaint never would have come up,” Burnside says.

The data backs her up. Good listening strongly correlates with patients’ perceptions of their encounters. And it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced, even if providers can’t get together in person.

Burnside uses a recall quiz to keep her team’s listening skills sharp. She tells them a quick story and asks her online group about certain specific details. It’s an activity that trains providers to perk up their ears and really take in what another person is saying.

“I do this because when patients tell you their story, remembering those details is what makes them feel heard,” Burnside says. “That’s what patients want. It’s what humans want.”

The full virtual experience

Burnside is a remarkably insightful and engaging leader in her organization. While the above contains some of her advice, it certainly does not do her whole approach justice. Really, the best way to get a sense of her engaging virtual-session philosophy is to experience it first-hand.

Fortunately, a recent NRC Health webinar offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

If you’d like to learn how to use technology to build patient-experience skills and sustain a healthy employee culture, Burnside’s It’s More Than Just a Metric webinar (hosted in conjunction with NRC Health) is the best place to go.

And to make sure you don’t miss the next one, be sure to sign up for our mailing list to get exclusive invitations to live events.