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The value of a great idea lies in using it

Apr 13, 2018, 09:35 AM by Mary Feldhusen

Donna Sollenberger - headshotI grew up with a father who made sure that if something was broken, it would be fixed. If the toilet ran too long, he got inside the tank and replaced the rubber stopper or the chain and, presto, it worked again. If the sink was stopped up beca­­use Mom tried to grind too many potato peels in the garbage disposal, Dad would use a plunger or drain snake to unblock the problem. Sometimes the clog was so bad, we couldn’t break the blockage unless one of us got up on the roof and held a towel down a pipe to prevent the clog from taking the undesirable path of least resistance. In fact, I remember my brother and me spending many a holiday on our roof as mom cooked loads of potatoes for all of the company we had over. The sink was generally guaranteed to back up at least once! Those moments were not my fondest holiday memories.

While my dad was the master of keeping up with repairs around the house (he had a firm belief that you should keep precious resources in working order), my husband, Kent, had a different experience with his father. Kent’s dad would make him come along as they made the rounds on the farm to fix the fence or cut down trees with a chain saw. However, they always had problems with the tools, which never seemed to work properly. To add to the matter, Kent’s father was always determined to fix problems himself – even if he had no idea how to do so. Kent said he hated having to go “fix” things with his dad because it meant he would be sitting around for hours watching his dad try to find the tool they needed so the repair could begin, and then he spent an even longer time watching his dad try to actually fix the object.

I remember once, early in our marriage, I saw Kent’s father in action. We had two peony bushes in our back yard that I wanted removed. We had tried cutting them back, but we never could seem to get the job done. They would always grow back. My father-in-law said he would fix the problem. He brought his chain saw to the house with a plan to cut off the peony bushes and then dig into the ground to remove the roots. With the extra-long extension cords running across the back yard to the chain saw, Tal began to try cutting down the bushes. Well, guess what? The chain kept slipping off. Hours later, he had unloaded every tool out of the tool box and had them spread all over our back yard. He had the chain saw in pieces with the chain lying on the sidewalk. The peony bushes were still standing. Kent and his dad were now arguing over whether they should just go buy a new chain saw. My father-in-law insisted he could fix the tool he had. I just wanted the peony bushes out of the yard!

Thinking back on this memory makes me laugh, because when we moved from that house four years later, the broken chain saw was still in the garage right in the cardboard box where it had been dumped, and the peony bushes had overtaken the backyard. In the end, I just learned to live with them.

This story came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I received a note from a patient’s family member. This individual wrote to tell me about her parents’ recent experience at one of our clinics. Each time they came to UTMB, they were told their insurance information was not in the system. And each time, they explained that they did have insurance – it had been updated over a year ago, but for some reason, every time they came to the clinic they had to give their information again. They weren’t upset – it was just something they had come to expect. Like me with the peony bushes, this couple had learned to live with repeatedly telling us their insurance information.

On one particular visit, however, Patient Services Specialist Karen Colombo took the time to check and see why this problem had persisted. She asked a few more questions and got the couple checked in. When they came out from the appointment with Nurse Practitioner Jillian Human, Karen called the couple back over and let them know she had resolved the issue. As it turns out, the patient’s information was being erased inadvertently each time, and the reason no one could see the problem prior to this was because of the way the information was displayed on the dual computer monitors.

The family was so impressed by this service, as well as the patient care they received, they quickly began sharing their story with all of their friends and family. They said they had never met anyone who provided such exceptional customer service: “We didn’t even ask [Karen] to do this. We had really just given up and were okay with explaining our situation every visit. I can’t believe she worked on this while we were seeing the nurse practitioner and then showed us what happened. She was so kind and kept apologizing, and I just wanted to hug her because she had taken the time to figure it out.”

I wanted to share this story not only because it echoed the message of last week’s Friday Flash Report – we really do build our reputation one patient at a time – but to also highlight the fact that when we see something that inhibits our ability to do our best work or to serve our patients in the best way possible, we should feel empowered to take the initiative to address the issue or fix the problem.

This could mean solving a problem that persisted, like Karen did in the story above, or it could mean that we have a great idea that we should share with our team. For those of you on the “front lines” of patient care and service, you have a firsthand understanding of what is going well and what might be improved with the patient experience, so it is important that we hear your feedback. For those of you in a supervisory role, I hope you will be responsive to suggestions, and if you need support, please share your thoughts with your leadership.

For example, faculty and staff can contribute innovative ideas that support targeted services and other potential programs, whether small or large (e.g., patient education for post-op cardiac surgery patients or a total joint replacement plan). Other suggestions might be ideas on how to improve access, ensure we are meeting patient needs, or improve the technologies we use. Everyone makes a difference when it comes to creating a positive patient experience, which is something that helps patients feel that they are in good hands. It is also a wonderful way UTMB and its care delivery partners will be distinguished as the best health system and health network in the region.

Steve Jobs once said that it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. You hire smart people so they can tell you what to do. If we have an idea that will help improve the experience of our patients, we should share it! If there is something we can easily address, we should seize the opportunity to do so. We should always be alert for ways we can make our patients’ clinic visits or hospital stays as comfortable and convenient as we would like our own experience to be. We really do not need to live with something that could be fixed or improved.

There is a quote by Victor Hugo that says, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” We need your innovative ideas and suggestions on how to improve the patient experience! I encourage you all to share your great ideas and to work as a team to plan and implement them!