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Published on Friday, November 07, 2014

Hospitals Take Cues From The Hospitality Industry

Two years ago, Inova Health System recruited a top executive who was not a physician, had never worked in hospital administration and barely knew the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.

What Paul Westbrook specialized in was customer service. His background is in the hotel business – Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton, to be precise.

He is one of dozens of hospital executives around the country with a new charge. Called chief patient experience officers, their focus is on the service side of hospital care: improving communication with patients and making sure staff are attentive to their needs, whether that’s more face time with nurses or quieter hallways so they can sleep.

It’s a dimension of hospital care that has long been neglected, patient advocates say, and it was put high on hospitals’ agendas only when Medicare started tracking patient satisfaction and, in late 2012, shaving payments to hospitals that fell short.

“There is a new recognition that the patient is important,” said Leah Binder, president and chief executive of the Leapfrog Group, an employer-based coalition that advocates for greater health-care quality and safety.

Hospital routines have traditionally been designed to suit employees, not customers, she said. “The patient used to be maybe 10th on the list of a hospital’s priorities.”

The financial penalties introduced by the Affordable Care Act are part of a broader effort to transform health-care delivery and improve quality while reining in costs, increasing transparency and holding hospitals and providers accountable for their work.

The penalties — which for now make up only a fraction of Medicare reimbursements — are based on a hospital’s ranking relative

to other hospitals. One component is how they do on surveys of recently discharged patients. The hospitals are judged on answers to such questions as how well their doctors and nurses communicated with them, how clean and quiet the hospital was, whether they received help when they needed it and how well providers explained the drugs they were given.

Many hospitals commission additional surveys to use for their own purposes, such as marketing and branding.

Chief patient experience officers treat these survey results like sacred texts.

“The one thing I’m not trying to do is to put a mint on the pillow,” said Westbrook, who reports directly to Inova’s president and chief operating officer. “This is a different customer, with very different needs.”

But as patients’ out-of-pocket costs have risen, he said, they have become savvier, more demanding consumers.

“They are going to look on the Internet and on Medicare’s site comparing hospitals, and they are going to read comments,” he said, and increasingly, they will select hospitals based on the reviews. “It’s no different from TripAdvisor.”

Lofty Goals, Practical Implementation

Unlike Westbrook, most chief patient experience officers rise through the ranks of a health system. Like him, though, they speak in lofty terms about teamwork, leadership and developing a philosophy and culture of compassion, service and respect at their institutions.

Westbrook, for instance, talks constantly about the “Inova promise” to “meet the unique needs of each person we are privileged to serve – every time, every touch.”

That phrase had “


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