CXO: Making patient experience a C-suite priority

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo.—The pile of letters complaining about a parking attendant was the tipping point for Kristine K. S. White, RN, MBA. White, in an exchange that would prepare her for the role of chief experience officer, confronted the surly staffer in his booth. He was, after all, often patients’ first encounter with Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich.

He acknowledged that he had heard about patients’ displeasure but what was he supposed do? “Stop pissing people off,” she fired back.

White, co-founder of Aefina Partners, Spectrum Health’s former system vice president of patient affairs and president of Spectrum Health Innovations, recounted the story June 19 at the MedAxiom Cardiovascular Service Line Symposium in Beaver Creek, Colo.

She remained in his cramped station, she continued, and the first car to pull up was a couple an hour late for a scheduled procedure because they had gotten lost. She reassured them and offered to call the nurses to let them know about the delay. The nurses appreciated the update.

With that, the attendant learned he could serve as a liaison for patients, a role he then embraced.

“You need to make sure everybody knows they matter and how they can contribute,” White said.

The chief experience officer is a new addition to the C-suite, with the responsibility of making patients partners with their physicians and hospitals in their healthcare journey. The position has taken on importance with the rollout of patient satisfaction measures and the emphasis on patient-centered care.

“This is not seen as fluff in warm and fuzzy times,” she said. “It is a strategic imperative.”

White began her career as a cardiac nurse, joining Spectrum Health in 1985, where she assumed leadership duties for cardiac rehabilitation and cardiac transplant. Her executive responsibilities included oversight of the Center for Exceptional Experiences.

White emphasized that much of patient experience in healthcare boils down to relationships. Litigation, for instance, may be less about deviations from standards of care and more about breach of relationships.

Physicians, hospitals and their systems should focus on what is important to the patient, she said. That includes engaging patients throughout—and perhaps before—their care. She discussed the value patients bring in the development of programs and processes. They can flag roadblocks that healthcare providers were blind to and help providers understand what quality means from their perspective.  

White also stressed the need for reliable data, including survey data of patients and their families, and the use of benchmarks. Hospital and physician leadership needs to actively buy into the concept, and every member of the healthcare team should understand their mission and value.   

“The perfect model doesn’t exist,” she said. “You have to create it, you have to own it and you have to do it.”

The chief experience officer role may not be practical for all organizations, she added, but “you have to have the function of the chief experience officer somewhere in your executive team.”