Everyone needs healthcare—even those of us in the industry. And our experiences in the patient’s shoes can give us an entirely new perspective on our organizations—and how well they’re delivering on the promise of exceptional patient care and experiences.
Today, the patient experience (PX) isn’t confined to clinical interactions; it encompasses all aspects of the healthcare journey. It’s looking for a provider—for themselves or a loved one. It’s ease of access to care. It’s the strength of communication between the organization and a patient, and how heard a patient feels at every turn. And it hinges on innately human-centric traits, like curiosity, empathy, compassion, gratitude, and love.
While experience leaders are well acquainted with patient survey data, they can miss out on rich insights when they don’t view that data in the context of the entire operation. How does employee engagement relate to the patient experience? How are perceptions of safety tied to patient acquisition? Charting a new, better path forward means asking questions you’ve never asked before—of yourself, of your colleagues and partners, and of your patients.
Top CXOs and experience leaders have spent a lot of time and energy exploring these topics, and looking at how the industry, as a whole, can elevate the Human Experience of healthcare. One of these PX champions is Alan Dubovsky, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Vice President and Chief Patient Experience Officer, and someone I’ve been honored to call a friend for more than a decade. Dubovsky has given plenty of thought to how to improve PX—in fact, he’s dedicated his career to this worthy mission. But it was his own illness that changed his perspective and led him to channel his natural curiosity into a rejuvenated PX approach.
Cedars-Sinai has been working with Press Ganey for about a year, and I’ve personally borne witness to the incredible strides they’ve already made to improve the patient experience. Dubovsky recently shared his formative, even revelatory, insights about how the team at Cedars-Sinai thinks about PX differently. I’m honored to further amplify that story.
When the provider becomes the patient: A perspective-altering experience
In August 2020, Dubovsky was diagnosed with what seemed to be a relatively mild case of COVID. But fast-forward a few months, and he began experiencing some bizarre symptoms. Five emergency department trips, 81 doctor visits, 11 new medications—not to mention countless tests, procedures, and studies—and one medical leave later, it turned out he had long COVID.
At first, he was angry. Angry it took so long to get any answers about his mysterious illness. But that anger gave way to a new realization: that his chronic condition wasn’t anyone’s fault, and that his doctors were doing their best.
This realization led him to ask himself some probing questions, which would change his perspective on the patient experience:
- What had he learned professionally that could guide his personal healthcare journey?
- Could he have this illness and still be himself?
- Would he be okay if some of his questions never got answered?
- What could he learn from patients’ daily experiences at Cedars-Sinai?
- What more could he do for Cedars-Sinai patients based on his personal experience?
It was those last two questions in particular that caused him to take a step back, and consider another question he's often asked: “As a PX leader, what exactly do you do?”
As experience leaders, we are constantly thinking about new and better ways to drive the patient experience. How do we listen more deeply and innately? How do we move past broad generalizations to understand how different populations or communities are experiencing care? How do we segment the data to pinpoint drivers of that experience, good or bad, and close any gaps?
I know everyone in our position faces these challenges, and that coming up with solutions to overcome them is a shared goal of all experience leaders.
“How do you take the voice of a group of people who are not physically at the table with you when you're making all these big healthcare administrative decisions? We work with partners like Press Ganey to take mass amounts of data, and turn it into meaningful information.”
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Chief Patient Experience Officer
We are the voice of the customer in healthcare—our patients
As PX leaders, we have to be patient advocates and champions. We have to speak up and call attention to lapses in experience for all those in our care. This, of course, is no small feat.
Being the voice of the patient starts with listening—learning how to tune in to patients’ experiences beyond their clinical interactions. And this means working with partners to translate a massive amount of data into meaningful stories. The challenge for organizations—from small critical access hospitals to large medical centers like Cedars-Sinai—is making sure everyone’s voice is heard. As Dubovsky says: “How do you take the voice of a group of people who are not physically at the table when we’re making all these big healthcare administrative decisions? We work with partners like Press Ganey to take mass amounts of data and turn it into meaningful information.”
Unless someone is empathetically listening, patients can feel lost, ignored, unimportant, and uncared for—which runs counter to everything we, in healthcare, represent and work toward. Of course, listening to patients doesn’t start during intake and end when an appointment is finished. Listening to patients must be a continuous, around-the-clock endeavor to understand their experiences at the moments that matter most.
We are here to ask questions, and find solutions
PX leaders must do the difficult but important work of listening deeply to patients. But we must look beyond the traditional questions and one-way PX surveys to develop more human-focused and empathetic ways to listen to—and learn from—patients. “We have pushed patients into a corner of telling us what we want to know, as opposed to letting them have the freedom to tell us what they want to tell us,” Dubovsky advises. This is why we must open the communication channels, and find new ways of collecting patient feedback.
He challenges his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai—as well as all other PX leaders—to rethink their approach to PX. Specifically:
- What if we change the way we talk about PX?
- What if we ask patients for feedback differently?
- What if we stop data-pushing, and tell a story?
- What if we become more operationally focused on PX?
- What if we hire against the grain—bringing in passionate people from various backgrounds, even from outside healthcare?
- What if we take risks in patient experience?
“Nothing helps people get better more than a story,” Dubovsky says. Using data, Cedars-Sinai is able to understand their patient populations better—their backgrounds, hopes, fears, and concerns. “I had to learn this lesson the hard way,” he adds. “But now when I do physician coaching, I will say to the physician: ‘Let’s put the data aside. Why don’t you tell me what you think the story of patient experience in your practice is today?’ And each time I’ve done that, the data has followed.”
We form strategic alliances with healthcare leaders outside of PX
PX leaders should be having conversations directly with patients, as well as with their colleagues across the organization, to understand how different aspects of care relate to and influence each other. We simply cannot stay in data silos.
Strategic alliances with other healthcare leaders—outside of traditional PX roles—are crucial to everything we’re trying to do. These alliances should involve leaders across clinical and nonclinical roles: the chief nursing officer, the chief medical officer, and the chief information officer, for example. “The more your nontypical patient experience partners get to know you, the more helpful those relationships will be,” Dubovsky says.
When we stand alone in our PX work, we fail to see the big picture—how that work is connected to the rest of the organization. Almost everything that Cedars-Sinai does has an operational metric tied to it. “That way,” Dubovsky says, “somebody else at the leadership table finds the project valuable and useful, and I’m not the only one advocating for it.”
This big-picture focus extends to hiring. Dubovsky seeks not only good people, but also different kinds of people—people that will contribute to Cedars-Sinai's culture not for what they already know, but how much they’re willing to learn. A background in PX is less important than a passion for PX—and, by extension, asking the right questions to positively transform the patient experience, for all those in our care.
“Talking about people as human beings takes away any negative connotation that someone might have for ‘patient experience’ or ‘consumer experience. The concept of ‘Human Experience’ is where it’s at.”
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Chief Patient Experience Officer
It’s also important to be vulnerable. “In healthcare administration, we commonly feel as if we’re not supposed to tell our patients—and one another—that we don’t know something,” Dubovsky says. “But let’s face it: There are times when we don’t have a clue what’s going on. There was a lot of that during COVID, when our numbers were up and down, and up and down. And it’s okay when we don’t know something. Being vulnerable with one another is what helps us through.” Sometimes, when we are strong enough to be vulnerable, we can forge real, human connections.
We never settle in our pursuit of excellent patient care
The world of healthcare is constantly evolving. But sometimes it feels easier to continue to do things that seem to be working fine than challenge convention. Breaking with tradition can be extraordinarily difficult, but it’s important that we disrupt the status quo to find better ways of doing things.
After Dubovsky’s life-changing diagnosis and experience with long COVID, he firmly believes that the role of patient experience leader is to be disruptive—to help others think differently—to continually drive improvements. PX leaders have to stay curious—as do all healthcare professionals. We have to constantly ask questions. We have to think of patients as humans. It’s the only way to understand how they think, feel, and experience care.
“Talking about people as human beings takes away any negative connotation that someone might have for ‘patient experience’ or ‘consumer experience,’” Dubovsky says. Trying to fit people into boxes ignores other interactions they have with a healthcare organization. But reframing PX through a human lens breaks those silos down and connects the dots. In Dubovsky’s words: “The concept of ‘Human Experience’ is where it’s at.”
This means asking questions of everyone.
- To your patients: What do you want to tell us, when do you want to tell us, and how do you want to tell us?
- To your leaders: What can I do to help your work and improve the patient experience?
- To your team: What can we do to keep supporting one another?
- To yourself: How can we use our personal experiences to shape what we do and help us do it better?
Dubovsky poses one final question, which I hope other leaders—PX and otherwise—will carefully consider: “What have you gone through over the last two or three years, and how can you use that to think differently?”
At Press Ganey, we have a long tradition of thinking differently. Thinking differently leads to fresh approaches, innovation, and transformation in healthcare. Thinking differently fuels better experiences and improved outcomes. And this must be an all-hands effort. We need the entire healthcare community to come together—sharing new and out-of-the-box ideas—to drive lasting, sustainable improvements in the Human Experience.
I would love to continue this conversation to discuss how, together, we can advance healthcare, and the Human Experience. If you care to join me, please reach out to a member of our patient experience team, and we’ll be in touch.