Theme parks have a lot to teach healthcare systems about patient experience

Patient satisfaction is a laudable goal for any healthcare provider, but winning high quality ratings and patients’ trust goes well beyond courteous staff and warm bedside manners. Consistent record keeping, robust contingency plans, well-supported staff and strong end-to-end engagement all play a role in crafting the ideal patient experience — and each of these components become harder and harder to handle with the greater size of a system’s operations.

Tackling these challenges requires a kind of strategic thinking that, frankly, many healthcare providers have only just begun dipping their toes into, says Dr. Steven Merahn, chief medical officer at Centria Healthcare. Fortunately, there are other industries further along that road which could offer a model for healthcare systems to follow.

“I went out into the world to find somebody to help me with this stuff, … and I could not, as the CMO of a large national practice at the time, find in healthcare the competencies that I needed to succeed. Nobody could come to me and say ‘Yes, we’ve taken on these challenges before,’” Merahn said. 

“So I went searching, and I found that interestingly enough, theme parks have many of the same challenges that healthcare has. Themed entertainment, resorts, destination retail — all of these situations try to create ‘immersive transformative experiences,’ … and I can’t think of anything more immersive and transformative than an episode of healthcare.”

At this year’s HIMSS20 show, Merahn and Cynthia Sharpe, principal of cultural attractions and research at experience design agency Thinkwell Group, will highlight the parallels between these separate industries. Both, as Sharpe explains, are required to handle large quantities of people, coordinate a diverse body of staff with various levels of educational background, and — importantly — build trust among consumers so that they may earn repeat business while imparting valuable knowledge. 

“Healthcare, like a museum, zoo or aquarium, is in the game of informal education, because we’re trying to get patients, their families, their caregivers, their communities to learn and integrate some really challenging content,” Sharpe said. “If I’m a parent and I’m terrified in a doctor’s office with my two-year-old who’s not breathing well, and the doctor tells me ‘Your kid has asthma,’ we’re expecting that parent to suddenly learn and assimilate and act on really complicated information.” 

Perhaps the single most important takeaway Sharpe has for healthcare is that effective patient experience design need to be holistic. On the one hand, that means thinking about the patient encounter from “the first sneeze” to well after they’ve been discharged. But more broadly, it also need to be focused on four major components of a large scale operation that a patient might encounter: the people, the platform, the places and the processes.

“We look at experience design incredibly holistically … [and] it’s as much as thinking through the operation, the back-of-house facilities [customers] never see,” Sharpe said. “Front and back of house has to work together really solidly to make sure that the experience is 360, and is designed so that you can cope when a curveball is thrown your way, whether that’s the Frozen ride breaking down if you’re at Walt Disney World, or a patient suddenly having a medical device, or a problem with a medical facility. True experience design, as we use that phrase, accounts for those things.” 

These concepts are just as applicable to the day-to-day operations of a facility as those emergency breakdown situations. For Sharpe, it’s the personal experience of having a child with severe food allergies — a major theme park like Disney has systems in place where her child is prevented from buying these offending foods, but in a healthcare setting it isn’t out of the ordinary for nurses to casually offer children a potentially dangerous snack (despite that information already being well documented in the EHR). Merahn, meanwhile, recounted the unexpected responsibilities many healthcare workers face when trying to take a breather.

“You’re stepping away from the ICU for a minute and you’re running numbers through your head, because that’s what nurses do,” he explained. “You’re in the elevator, and someone walks in and says ‘excuse me, where’s the gift shop?’ What does that do to the moment that your in as a professional? You have to shut down the work you’re doing in your head, and you’re obligated due to patient satisfaction programs to take that person to the gift shop and make small talk. 

“If we designed hospitals with a back-of-house component, then that break would happen ‘on stage.’ Every hotel has a back elevator you never see where they wheel the room service and laundry carts out. Yet in hospitals we co-mingle those things, and that contributes significantly to burnout.”

Using these and other interdisciplinary case studies, Merahn and Sharpe will be sharing their takeaways for healthcare patient experience design at HIMSS20 in a session titled “What Can Healthcare Learn from Theme Parks and Museums?” It is scheduled for Wednesday, March 11 from 2:30-3:30p.m. in room W308A.

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