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October 12, 2015

Skoczelas: It's not the patient experience, it's the people experience

Daily Briefing

Despite the growing focus on patient experience efforts, surveys suggest that many hospitals and health systems still fail to meet—or even exceed—patients' needs and desires.

But other organizations have spent years crafting a strategy to boost experience. And one health system has consistently set a high bar: Sharp HealthCare.

The Daily Briefing recently spoke with Lynn Skoczelas, Sharp's chief experience officer, to learn how her organization became a patient experience top performer (and Baldrige Award winner), and how other systems can follow suit.

Question: Lynn, I'd like to get a sense of your background. I see you've spent 14 years directly involved in Sharp's patient experience initiatives. Was that a part of health care that was always on your radar, or did you just stumble into it?   

Lynn Skoczelas: When I came to Sharp, I held several positions within child and women's services.

Over the past few decades, women have begun demanding more out of their labor and childbirth experiences. They want birthing suites, or in-home deliveries, or deliveries with certain types of practitioners.

So through working in that realm and trying to ensure that all my patients were having the experience they desired, I really became integrated in the importance of patient experience. I was always the one who was conducting the surveys to figure out what our patients liked and disliked and how we could make things better. It was really just who I was and what I was interested in.

Meanwhile, Sharp was just beginning the journey that we call The Sharp Experience, which cemented the system's commitment to bettering the patient experience at all of our hospitals.

Q: You refer to the The Sharp Experience as a "journey." What do you mean by that?

Skoczelas: Fifteen years ago we set out on a figurative journey to become the best health care system in the universe. That means being the best place to work, to practice medicine, and to receive care.

In doing that, we created a foundation of seven pillars of excellence: Quality, Service, People, Safety, Finance, Growth, and Community.

Those seven pillars really are about that entire experience—not just for our patients but for our physicians and our employees as well.

The backbone of the entire program is that if we don't put our employees first they will not feel emotionally supported and will be unable to provide the care to our patients that we want them to. By making Sharp the best place to work, we are able to attract people who are very engaged in our culture and develop an affiliation with physicians with similar values. We make it a partnership with how we work together.

And only then, when those things are in place, can we make it the best place for patients to receive care.

Q: That sounds like an admirable business model. Have you seen other health systems or businesses in general try to build off of that?

Skoczelas: Absolutely.

When we began the journey, our CEO Mike Murphy said we were going to begin to change the culture of the organization. He wanted Sharp's [staff] to really be part of crafting the organization they wanted from the ground up. He brought everyone into sessions over several days to discuss the journey and invited staff and physicians alike to be a part of it. And we created action teams and appointed team leads to ensure all parts of the organization were integrating this into their practices.

So, I think what's different about Sharp, number one, is that we have had time to master some of the skills and practices other systems are just now trying to learn. It's very difficult to take those pillars and put them in place at an organization. So, by becoming early adopters, we've really had time on our side.

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And if you look at how the culture has evolved over time, you come to see an engagement of the people from the patient level all the way up.

Q: You obviously care about your patients and their experiences and want to teach others the best way to engage patients. But how do you accomplish that while still maintaining viability as a business and recognizing there is competition in the health care sector?

Skoczelas: This is an age of consumerism—and Sharp has been putting the consumer first for the past 16 years.

By making sure employees feel supported and that they have the resources they need to do the best for patients and families, the more patients and families feel supported. And the more they receive personal attention, the more they feel like they are in good hands.

And we committed ourselves a year ago to becoming a high-reliability organization spanning across all seven pillars. That's how we're going to stay competitive in the accountable care arena.

That carries the brand and that is the business model and we feel secure in that.

Q: Have the ACA's quality standards and health IT initiatives required you to reshape your ideas on experience optimization?

Skoczelas: Sure. Adaptability is key. How we deliver The Sharp Experience in a virtual world is going to be important and we need to focus on delivering the best experience in different settings.  

Right now we're focusing on improving our search capabilities and on-demand services and are working to optimize user experience through our website redesign.

Retail is an industry that we've also had to adapt our services to mirror. Over the last 10 years, health care has been more influenced by service industries like hotels, restaurants, and theme parks. We have studied and learned from those industries, and are modeling some of our future strategy off of those.  

Q: What I really feel like you're getting at here is that it's not just the patient experience, it's the people experience.

Skoczelas: I think you nailed exactly what I want to say. Many organizations are putting into place what they are calling the Chief Patient Experience Officer to oversee patient relations. But Sharp is light years ahead of that experience element. 

I think Chief Experience Officer is a title that organizations are clamoring to have, but they still don't know how to do it.

Organizations must take a leap of faith, knowing that if they focus on the right things for the right reasons, the rest of it comes along. If you look at our organization over 15 years, we have increased employee satisfaction into the 97th or 98th percentile and physician satisfaction to the 97th percentile, decreased our turnover significantly, and upped our patient satisfaction close to the 90th percentile. We've also increased our revenue 100-fold and increased our market share every year for the past 14 years.

And the commitment to those seven pillars is what led to it all.

Q: So do you think in the next decade other places will be following suit on focusing on experience overall rather than just the patient experience?

Skoczelas: I hope so. I hope that what health care will learn is that for a hospital or health system to truly be the organization they want to be, they must start with the employee and go from there.

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