Patient Experience: Personal, Emotional, And Critical

Last week my son, Alex, had reconstructive surgery to repair his torn ACL (the ligament that holds the inside of a knee together).

He’s 11 years old.

I have to admit that this procedure worried me like hell for all sorts of irrational reasons. Sure, things could have gone wrong. But the surgeon who operated on my son literally invented this type of surgery, which is only used on children and pre-adolescents who are still growing. Plus we had the procedure donev at Boston Children’s Hospital, which topped the U.S. News & World Report honor roll of best children’s hospitals.

All that gave the left part of my brain comfort, even as the right part of my brain tried its hardest to give me high blood pressure. Fortunately, the operation was an unqualified success, and as I write this, we are three days into the recovery period, which is also going well.

Now normally I wouldn’t blog about something this personal. But throughout the process, Alex — who knows what I do for a living — kept telling me that he was having a great experience and that I should write about it.

Frankly, I was quite curious as to why Alex thought — and forgive me for being graphic — that getting his leg opened up and put back together with a bunch of new parts was “a great experience.” So I asked him.

Harley: You’ve said a number of times that you had a great experience at Boston Children’s Hospital. From your point of view, what made it a great experience?

Alex: Everyone was really nice to me. And they did a great job at keeping my pain level down.

Harley: Were you scared?

Alex: A little at first.

Harley: How did you feel when you were getting wheeled into the operating room?

Alex: I felt good because everyone was smiling at me. They let my mom hold my hand. The person who gave me the anesthesia was saying, “Okay, relax, breathe in and out” in a really calm voice. And they were making some jokes that were pretty funny, like, “What kind of anesthesia smell would you like? We have bubble gum but my favorite is hairy armpit smell.”

Harley: Is there anything you would have changed about your experience?

Alex: I wish I could have shaken Dr. Kocher’s hand after the surgery because he did a great job of repairing my ACL. And I wish I could thank the nurses again because they didn’t seem tired at all, and they were all really nice. They had long shifts that ran late into the night and they had to check on me at times like 4:00 in the morning. It was crazy. I felt okay getting woken up because I was in just a little bit of pain. They’d ask me how much pain I was in and then give me medicine and say something like, “This will only take a second — open your mouth and then you’ll be able to go to sleep.” And they were really good at answering any questions that I had.

Harley: How are you feeling now?

Alex: Pretty good.

Harley: And who have you told about your experience so far?

Alex: I texted friends and family. I said that I had surgery on my knee and that it turned out really well.

Here are three things I take away from this experience (which will continue for months as we go through rehab).

First, Even though my co-author Kerry Bodine and I included case studies about patient experience in our new book, Outside In, there’s nothing like living through a case study to bring it home. 

Second, it’s impossible to overestimate the relative importance of the emotional aspects of patient experience. As Dr. Jim Merlino, chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, once told me, “We should pay attention to patient's perceptions of the care we deliver. They don‘t care what medications we prescribe, so much — their only measure of quality is how we treat them.” That sounded right to me at the time. And because of Alex’s experience, I now know that Jim is right.

Third, the word of mouth generated by a digital native (a.k.a., an 11-year-old) is awesome to behold. I estimate that Alex texted at least six relatives and friends about his experience within 48 hours of his procedure — some from his hospital bed. As his generation ages, they’ll take their tech-related behaviors with them, which means that in the future, news of what you do to delight (or annoy) your customers will propagate to more people, and sooner, than in the past. And that should make you re-examine the impact of even a single customer experience on your business.


From the mouths

OK, I am biased (being related to the author and the subject of this post) but I found this article to be so profound and important. At the end of the day, the most lasting memory we have about an experience is how we felt we were treated. Alex cuts straight to the heart of it when he says, "Everyone was really nice to me." This is a place you will immediately turn to should your son (or grandson...?) ever need additional treatment.
I am reminded of my experiences with my local cable company (also my internet provider). Getting through their phone menus for any kind of service request is usually a nightmare and makes me dread the need for a call - but the people who ultimately take my calls are unfailingly wonderful. They are patient, pleasant and clearly want to help me resolve my issue. After my most recent move, I experienced a number of service problems and spent a lot of time on the phone with this company. By the time I got to a live person I was usually furious (the phone menus are that bad) but the customer service reps were always able to turn my experience around and leave me feeling better. Although the company would do well to redesign their access, they couldn't possibly have better staff on the other end of the line. Everyone should have such great customer service reps!
Harley (and Alex), thanks for sharing this wonderful experience with everyone - it is important. And of course I am glad Alex is doing so well.

Service, experience and product design

I love these kind of personal examples. It's so intriguing that experiences we used to just have to put up with are now shifting in our favor as consumers. Now that there is a general awareness amongst everyone (from doctors to airline staff) about the importance of a satisfied customer, it seems like many organizations are putting the pieces in place to really enable those employees to deliver better experiences. In the case of hospitals and the healthcare market, I think that there are some factors that are still out of control of physicians, but will be improved on in the future. For example, the physician may be incredibly kind and diligent, but the embarrassment of pre-surgery preparation, the coldness of the recovery rooms, or even the side effects of the treatment may "scar" the entire experience.

I would be interested in reading about how actual products (not just services) are being redesigned to improve the old school type of care people have become unnecessarily accustomed to.

Harley, have you heard any examples from hospitals or medical equipment manufacturers?

Medical product design

For some reason I didn't see your comment until just now -- sorry about that!

I have not seen a lot of innovation in medical equipment but then I haven't been looking for it specifically. Among the few things I have seen: the move to make MRI machines more patient friendly with headphones and a choice of soothing music or radio, relaxing (not harsh) lighting in the room, room decorations designed to relax you...

What have you seen?