Social Distancing Can’t Mask a Great Patient Experience

By Susan Milligan, CHAM, CRCR Director Patient & Guest Experience, Ensemble Health Partners & Codi Loughrin, CRCR Patient Access Manager, Assessment Team, Ensemble Health Partners

Finally hearing the news that your state is easing restrictions
on elective surgeries as one of the first steps to reopening
the economy is music to every healthcare system’s ears.
It can also be overwhelming as we navigate our way into
a “new normal.” After what feels like an eternity following
shelter-in-place orders, people are undoubtedly experiencing
both joy and anxiety; joy at the return of more normal
routines, but anxiety over changes that will exist long after
this pandemic is behind us.

With different trends across the country, we understand not
all states have reached their peak number of cases. But, for
those of us in locations where economies are starting to
reopen, we have opportunities to demonstrate what it
means to act with empathy when we resume the “new


-Hellen Keller

Acknowledge Their Fear

The last month has required families to become well versed
on engaging via Zoom, Facetime, and other technologies.
As we ease our way back into face-to-face encounters, it is
important we recognize and address the fear our patients
are likely feeling as they come back into our hospitals. To do
that, first remember your “why.” Why did you choose health
care? Why did you choose to serve? Most of us can say it is
because we wanted to give back or care for others. Now is
your chance to lead with empathy and a servant’s heart.

Second, consider our patient’s fear likely comes from not
knowing what to expect. Anything we can do to be proactive
with information about how things will look and feel during
their visit is critical. Collaborate with your Marketing Team
to ensure your social media and websites are updated with
the new processes patients must follow and how processes
may have changed (such as adding markers on the floor for
maintaining a social distance or registering via phone) to
keep them safe.

Finally, pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues you
receive from patients. Listen to the things about which they
express fear or uncertainty. Is it the being around other
people or the procedure itself? Perhaps they are concerned
with the amount of time they’ll spend in the location.
Whatever you pinpoint by acting with empathy, take time to
resolve it.

Taking these steps may not solve all situations, but they will
certainly reduce anxiety and demonstrate how we are being
proactive to be the difference they need right now.

Be Music to Their Ears

You’ve heard it said a thousand times, it’s not just what
you say, but how you say it. Your tone has never been more
important than it is right now because your smile is hidden
behind a mask. The dictionary defines tone as “a musical or
vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality, and strength.”
Are you being music to someone’s ears or do you sound
like a child’s first recorder lesson? Your tone is responsible
for expressing an attitude or feeling about your work
environment and about the state of the world today in
mid-pandemic. How you convey your message will evoke
an emotional response from those around you. As we
return to the “new normal” we want to evoke positive feelings: hope, confidence, enthusiasm, empathy. In the days
and weeks ahead, as you engage with more and more people, be mindful of your tone, including the volume of
your voice, your articulation (masks muffle!) and the
speed at which you’re talking.

Unmasking Your Smile

Entering a facility right now could be compared to a quiet
Main Street town after dark or a business district on a
Sunday morning. The halls are quiet, and the faces are
different. A screener dressed in full body personal
protective equipment (“PPE”) may meet patients at the
door, screen their temperature, and ask screening questions.
To our teams it may seem the norm as we don this added
protection daily, but to a guest and patient at our facilities
they may not see the person behind the mask.

Beyond barriers of countries, traditions, or languages, the
smile is a universal sign that brings comfort and happiness.
Safety precautions now leave smiles masked and covered…
but do they? The term “smile and dial” is used frequently
with sales and customer service call centers. Despite a caller
not being able to see the physical smile, the upbeat tone and
positive language communicates the smile and impacts the
interaction. Studies evidence this through enhanced sales
and satisfaction measures. Although your physical smile
may be currently covered by a shield, a paper or handmade
cloth mask, it does not keep us from maintaining a smile
behind it. Your upbeat tone, positive language, and even
your eyes tell the person in front of you that you
understand and you’re here to help.

As some areas welcome more patients and continue to
serve those already entering our facilities, consider a few
small actions we can take to show compassion:

  1. Smile through the mask: Smiling eyes are real, and they
    are a powerful communicator
  2. Don’t ignore your added veil: Explain or acknowledge
    the additional PPE
  3. Put yourself in the patient’s shoes: Expect patients to be
    weary, anxious, or uncertain, and be prepared to educate
    them on new processes or requirements
  4. Ensure a photo or badge is clearly visible: Identifying
    yourself by name and keeping your badge visible goes
    a long way to making a connection and building a
    patient’s trust
  5. Pin a photo of your family (even your fur baby) to you:
    Quietly acknowledge we all are a part of something
    bigger, even the front-line heroes

Having a Heart at Six Feet Apart

Six feet apart; we hear and see it everywhere, from gas
pumps to overhead announcements and duct tape red x’s
on the floor. If you are anything like us, you have felt the
uneasiness even in the grocery store. People seem nervous about even saying hello or smiling at one another. But what
we should embrace is the idea that physical distance does
not keep us from losing sight of those around us. There are
no rules prohibiting a pleasant “Good Morning” or sharing a
smile. Each associate should continue to practice safe social distancing, but we should also practice social kindness.

Patient Access is the first point of contact at many locations.
Our teams are supporting screening tables, emergency
arrivals, and outpatient testing. To maintain the distancing
standards, we have approached many processes differently: Exchanging needed information in plastic bags, asking
patients to stand six feet from desks, or standing behind
plexiglass barriers. Returning to normal may not look the
same. Here are some ways to continue the important work
of your teams… while you are six feet apart:

  1. Ensure there is a robust Pre-registration process in
    place to limit time at the point of entry
  2. Consider using phones in open areas to limit patient
    information being shared in public areas
  3. Post a phone number at Point of Registration that
    patients can call from their own personal devices to limit
  4. Utilize online portals to collect data prior to visit

As we all adapt to the “new normal,” remember patients
have the same fears we do, except theirs may be coupled
with the additional anxiety of a medical condition bringing
them to our hospital during a pandemic. Be sure to maintain a positive attitude, let your voice be music to their ears,
and remember to smile because even a mask can’t stop the
spread of kindness

Handshakes and hugs may no longer be appropriate, but
friendliness and service will never go out of style. Wave
and say, “good morning,” provide directions, or even walk
a patient where they are going. This little bit of “extra” can
change their entire experience and make them feel normal in
a not so normal world.