When patients and their families arrive at a healthcare facility, they are often feeling scared, overwhelmed, and vulnerable. They need reassurance, compassion, and clear indication that everyone representing the hospital or clinic knows exactly what he or she is doing. How your staff behaves and what they say are crucial to building trust and confidence during critical moments of truth, and that trust and confidence quickly evolves into a partnering relationship to improve compliance and, ultimately, clinical outcomes and loyalty. But when staff behavior or comments appear detached, unorganized, or unsure, patients’ trust erodes very quickly, placing them “on guard” for the rest of the encounter.
Not long ago, I spent time monitoring first impressions during the admission process for a large, well-known healthcare system as part of an ethnography study to reveal in-depth information on the patient experience. I was stunned to hear some of the conversations and how they affected the patients. After 30 minutes of observation, I had a good idea about a few things contributing to their poor satisfaction scores. I studied the faces of the patients arriving as they stepped up to the registration desk. It was clear that many, if not most, of them were anxious. After all, they weren’t arriving for a week of relaxation and pampering at a five-star spa. They were facing surgeries, tests, and invasive procedures. Here is how the process went and how one patient responded:
- Patient approaches the registration desk and sees a sign that says “Stand Back Until You are Called.” (Patient: slightly annoyed and probably thinking, “Not too friendly, but I get the privacy thing”)
- The attendant is typing, glances at her cell phone, and without looking up says “Next.” (Patient: most likely thinking the attendant is detached, even rude)
- The patient approaches the desk and gives her name.
- The attendant, still not making eye contact, says “Hmm. What did you say your name is? I’m not seeing it here. Did they tell you you’re scheduled for today?” (Patient: has to be thinking “You’ve got to be kidding me” and is concerned that her information is lost, wondering if they are even prepared for her)
Gut check. If this was my first impression of an organization that will be putting me under anesthesia and cutting me open in just a few hours, I’d be having second thoughts. I’d be on the alert for possible mistakes. Now, you may be thinking any idiot would know that this encounter is with a clerical person who has nothing to do with the surgical procedures or other technical and clinical care, but, to a patient who is frightened, this encounter is all she knows about the organization, and it is setting the stage for everything that follows. If the big question in her mind is, “Can I trust them?,” then clearly the answer is no.
When we teach our class “Words that WOW!,” we help each participant identify what behaviors and phrases he or she can use to build trust with patients and co-workers. Every individual in a healthcare setting has opportunities throughout the day to make or break a patient’s trust in the organization. In this situation, the attendant could have been on alert for people approaching the desk (After all, that is her job.). She could have made immediate eye contact and said good morning or another welcome. When the patient gave her name, the attendant could have said, “I’m glad you’re here. We are all set for you.” If any of those things would have happened, the patient would have felt much more confident and welcome.
What are you doing to help your team members see how vital their roles are in building trust? And how are you monitoring and recognizing the behaviors that represent your organizational values?