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Worlds apart—social worker and clinician perspectives in the CXO role

Today, healthcare leaders face unprecedented challenges. Overcoming them will take input from all corners of the industry. In our Worlds Apart Blog Series (click here to read part 1), we want to draw together diverse perspectives on some of the most urgent issues of the day. We hope it proves instructive.

It’s early days yet for the position of the Chief Experience Officer. In healthcare organizations, the title’s not even 10 years old. That, plus the job’s broad mandate, means that a variety of different professionals can occupy the office of CXO, each bringing their own strengths to the task.

In this edition of NRC Health’s Worlds Apart Blog Series, we’ll hear from two of them:

Beth Ann Drolet, MD, is the former Chief Experience Officer at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and a practicing pediatric dermatologist at the hospital’s Milwaukee campus. Her training as a physician informs her work in improving the patient experience.

Susan Goodbody-Murray, LCSW, meanwhile, rose up the health system ranks as a social worker. She’s Chief Experience Officer at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, and she credits her social work background for skills she’s needed to excel in her job.

Both clinical and social work perspectives can contribute enormously to a CXO’s efficacy. Here’s how their unique perspectives inform their practice.

Approaches to Time Management

Every institution comes with its own demands and challenges. The CXO’s role inevitably evolves to suit them. Leadership at Blythedale Children’s Hospital decided that their team needed someone devoted exclusively to the job.

“The CXO position at Blythedale was created pretty recently, and I stepped into it,” Goodbody-Murray says. “The CEO is very friendly to social work, so he saw how my background would fit with what we wanted to accomplish.”

This suits Goodbody-Murray perfectly. She says that her sole leadership means that she gets “involved in every aspect of the care of the patient’s experience,” which she finds to be both enriching and effective. “I wear a lot of hats in my typical day, but that means I’m very knowledgeable about what goes on in the building,” she says.

Dr. Drolet has a different working style. She still practices as a dermatologist, but divides her time in order to fulfill her administrative duties as CXO.

This can make for a hectic schedule, Drolet says—“Which is why I have a partner, Maggie Butterfield, who’s a patient experience leader alongside me.”

While her dual roles are certainly demanding, Drolet believes the crossover makes her a better practitioner—both as an administrator and as a doctor. “In my capacity as CXO I spend a lot of time drawn into areas where physicians don’t normally go, like social work, et cetera,” she says. “That makes me more effective in my clinical practice, and vice versa.”

The Work and Its Goals

Goodbody-Murray’s and Drolet’s different backgrounds show in their divergent approaches to problem solving.

Drolet’s experience as a clinician exposed her first-hand to a major obstacle for CXOs: data cynicism from clinicians. She identified the issue as one of her first priorities.

“The goal is to dispel doubts as early as possible, move us beyond that ‘Is the patient satisfaction data right or wrong?’ question, so we can start to make changes,” she says. “We have to elevate patient experience to the same level of other outcome measures. It’s not just a ‘nice to have.’ It’s essential.”

Drolet’s focus on a specific obstacle at Children’s Hospital underscores her clinical mindset. It’s highly analytical and case-specific.

Goodbody-Murray looked at the issue more broadly at Blythedale. “Our goal is culture change,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge. We’re trying to make patient satisfaction a whole hospital project, not just a CXO project.”

She believes that comes naturally to social workers. “We’re used to working with people,” she adds. “We’re used to thinking in a broad, systems-view kind of way, and understanding how positive change really happens.”

This has given her a unique advantage in the campaign to effect positive change at Blythedale.

Finding Emotional Resonance

Though they each had their own formulations of the issue, both Goodbody-Murray and Drolet understood that, as CXOs, they would have to be advocates. Motivating clinical staff would be a major part of their jobs. If they were going to be effective, they’d need to make an emotional connection with their colleagues.

To do that, Goodbody-Murray mobilized the relationships she’d cultivated over her long tenure at Blythedale. “I believe staff listened to me because I’ve been here for 22 years,” she says.

She argues, though, that her sincerity is far more important than her seniority. “My heart breaks when we get a poor survey,” she says. “People can see that. They know I’m for real. That wins them over, gets things going.”

Dr. Drolet’s approach drew on her front-line clinical experience to make the case for a better patient experience.

“Yes, absolutely, doctors and nurses respond to the fact that I’m a clinician like them,” she says. But, she adds, that was not enough to win over clinicians who were skeptical about the value of experience data. “I had to show them I had skin in the game. I had to be willing to be vulnerable myself, and show staff my own low or negative reviews. That went a long way. It showed them that I wasn’t just commanding this from afar,” she says.

The sense of personal involvement was essential for both of these CXOs to achieve what they wanted.

The Signs of Success

Once they managed to recruit colleagues to their causes, Drolet and Goodbody-Murray each took tremendous satisfaction from how their institutions improved.

Goodbody-Murray points to how Blythedale’s staff members are committing themselves to change. “For me, it’s about passing the change along,” she says. “For instance, we started a ‘Quiet at Night’ initiative that our night manager really took and ran with, and made it her own.”

For Goodbody-Murray, that’s inspirational. “It’s what I call building the base of the pyramid,” she says. “It’s starting small, getting other people to take ownership and see what’s really possible.”

Dr. Drolet takes a more granular approach. She relishes the improvements she sees in patient satisfaction, and watching physicians take the issue seriously.

“I love seeing how doctors who fought the hardest against the data, eventually start believing in it, and they’re showing some of the biggest improvements in satisfaction,” she says. “And all this brings us closer to understanding the psychology of the patient, which is one of the foundations of our work.”

Always Room to Improve

Finally, Goodbody-Murray and Drolet both agree that success as a CXO depends on keeping an open mind. They’re both constantly learning new things about the profession.

Goodbody-Murray’s biggest educational moment came from the other side of a care experience, when her son had fallen seriously ill.

“My son was hospitalized for a week. That taught me how powerless it can make you feel to be in a hospital,” she says. “And when I was in the middle of this, and I hadn’t been taking care of myself because I was so focused on my son, the EVS team brought me an amenities kit, with soap and shampoo and everything, and then they showed me the way to the shower. When I was finished getting clean, I felt like a human being again. That was so powerful.”

The experience resonated with her so much that she started a similar program at Blythedale—which patients really love.

And Dr. Drolet, too, learned an important lesson from a different side of the hospital.

“One of the most important moments in my career came in a conversation I had with my CXO partner Maggie [Butterfield, mentioned above], who’s a social worker,” Drolet says. “She asked me once how I would handle an angry patient. I said, ‘Oh, I’d call security.’ And she pointed out that doing that is an escalation, it breaks patient trust, and the patient would probably never want to speak to me again.”

That talk gave Drolet pause, and made her reflect on her instincts as a physician. “That was a wonderful gift,” she says. “It made me consider how to manage conflict better, and think more broadly about what happens to a patient before they come to the hospital. And it made me realize that if social work’s not part of the picture, things will get missed.”

Goodbody-Murray’s and Drolet’s stories perfectly encapsulate what a CXO needs to succeed. Even given their different credentials and backgrounds, they both draw upon a deep empathy and broad-mindedness that lends to a holistic vision of the patient.

Perhaps even more importantly, they’re humble enough to understand that the CXO has a big job, and the work of learning how to perform it never truly ends.