The perfect patient result – Why improving patient experience is the key

Kevin Kirksey

Husband, father, grandfather, speaker, author, and former Cardiac Care ICU patient.

The perfect patient result – Why improving patient experience is the key

14 March 2022 | 16min

Quick Takes

  • The perfect healthcare result positively impacts patient/staff satisfaction, workforce preservation, and potential for increased rates of patients returning and net new patients.

  • The “little things” that clinical and non-clinical personnel do inspire patients to give back and be motivated to tell others about their experiences.

  • Consider your business through the eyes of your patients. After all, they see everything.

Many believe there is no such thing as perfect healthcare. That may be true. However, if you improve patient experience this can create the perfect patient result that, once achieved, can impact the business, the patient, and staff in profound ways.

The perfect patient result can be achieved, independent of the patient outcome. Of course, the end goal is always to get that desired outcome, but sometimes that’s not always possible, so how do you get the perfect patient result regardless?  It requires contributions from both clinical and non-clinical personnel, including those who do not have direct patient interaction. As they say, “it takes an army.” Here we aim to uncover a patient’s perspective on the who, what, and how to improve patient experience and achieve the perfect patient healthcare result.

Imagine achieving the following results for every patient or patient family, independent of patient outcomes:

  • Our experience was great
  • We are going back to that same facility for our future healthcare needs
  • We are recommending this to others

Not only do I have first-hand experience at achieving this perfect result, I have also witnessed first-hand these results being achieved even amid the worst of outcomes, e.g., death. 

The perfect patient result – what it is and where it came from 

I am a former cardiac intensive care unit patient who went through a profound transformation due to my care. As a result, giving back to healthcare has become my life’s passion and mission. I am not a medical expert. However, I have often been referred to as an expert patient because of my profoundly personal perspectives, observations, research, and examples of those elements that contribute to helping improve patient experience and achieving what I label the “perfect patient result.” 

By sharing my patient perspectives, observations, and research, healthcare providers can gain deeper insights into what they do, why they matter, and the profound difference they can make with patients and their loved ones, well beyond just the healthcare setting. 

These insights can fuel the creation of new strategies for improvement, which will positively impact patient, family, and staff satisfaction, outcomes, scoring, workforce preservation, and the potential for improved return and net new patient rates. 

The profound rippling effect of selfless, high-quality care  

Several years ago, after having no symptoms or warnings of any health issues, I learned that I was fast approaching a very near-term, highly probable fatal event through an unusual set of circumstances. As a result of the care I received, not only did I recover well, I now see life through an entirely different lens. 

Through the example of countless selfless caregivers, my eyes, ears, and heart were opened to witnessing the blessing of the profound impact that can be made on others through the simple affirmation of value, relevance, and importance.

I began to replay and document my entire patient experience during my recovery. My conclusion is I experienced the perfect result, which can be summarized by:

  • I had a great experience
  • I am going back to that same facility for my future healthcare needs
  • I am telling others about it

I will never forget how badly and ashamed I felt upon learning that a father passed away on the operating table at the hospital I urged and recommended his family take him to. I built up the courage to find any combination of words that could adequately describe my guilt and sorrow for their loss. I felt responsible. Their response shocks me. I am told that although Dad didn’t make it, they had a tremendous experience at this hospital, and they will be returning there for their healthcare needs, and until then, they are telling others about their great experience. 

This unfortunate circumstance happened to me again two months later, with a different family. I received the same response from this family as I did the other. 

These patient and family conclusions, the perfect results, are indeed achievable independent of the patient outcome.

  • Our experience was great
  • We are going back to that same facility for future healthcare needs
  • We are telling others about it

It’s the little things that can matter most 

In the operating room, our surgeons hold our hearts in their hands and restart them. In the operating room of life, our caregivers have our lives in their hearts and restart, reshape, and mold them in ways we do not imagine possible.

I genuinely believe all big things are made possible through little things that leave lasting impressions. 

Something big is about to happen to me due to the care I received, rooted in little things done for my family and me, and causing by far the most significant and most lasting impact on my recovery and my life beyond the healthcare setting. 

I have documented over 120 little things done for my family and me by clinical and non-clinical personnel during my stay at the hospital and through cardiac rehabilitation. Each of these little things made me feel valued, relevant, and important, inspiring me to give back, and overall helped to improve my patient experience.

1) “I Got Your Back” The scheduling system was not cooperating with the person trying to find some open slots for diagnostic tests. I tell her how frightened I am about the severity of my problem and ask if there was anything she could do to get me in soon. She looks at me and, with determination and compassion in her eyes, replies, “I got your back. We are going to make this happen.” Twenty seconds later, she says, “how about we start in one hour. Her compassion for my predicament made me feel special and valued, not as a patient, instead as a human being. 

2) “You are my patient and a priority” The Cardiologist explains I have just one option for survival. I ask him for two things: 1) to help me move on this as fast as the healthcare system will allow; 2) to help me find a top cardiac surgeon.  He says, “just a minute,” as he excuses himself from the room. When he comes back, he says we will move fast and that he also just secured a world-class surgeon who agreed to operate on me. Because he understood the importance to me, he seized the moment on my behalf and got everything in motion in a matter of minutes versus taking the easy way out. I was a priority to him.

3) “I will bring my A-Game” Meeting the surgeon for the first time, he explains what is wrong with me and how to fix it. He then asks if I have any questions. “Yes, just one,” I replied, “will you please bring your A-game?”. I would have imagined most surgeons might respond with “Yes, of course, I will,” not this surgeon. He says, “I am honored and privileged for the trust and faith you are giving me by putting your life in my hands, and yes, I will bring my A-game.” It was then that I realized not only is he a world-class surgeon, he is also a world-class human being. He made it his business to validate me in such a noble way, causing me to feel ultra-comfortable and believe in his sincerity to do his very best.

4) “You deserve all our hearts” I noticed the admissions person, CT, has a stress ball in the shape of a heart in the palm of his hand. I asked him if there were any extra so that I could have one. Unfortunately, he was unable to locate one. He then walked with my wife and me to where we needed to go. This handoff made us feel special. Three months later, I entered the hospital on my way to speak at a new hire luncheon. As I passed through the lobby, I heard, “Mr. Kirksey, Mr. Kirksey.” Turning around, I see CT briskly walking toward me. “I have something for you.” He hands me a heart-shaped stress ball. With no pun intended, I say, “you just gave me your heart, didn’t you.” “You are very deserving of all of our hearts, Mr. Kirksey.” This stress ball is a beaconing reminder of the day CT gave me his heart, making me feel valued and relevant as a human being. I was in the hospital to have my heart repaired. CT enhanced it through his service.

Little things that made a big impact on me were also abundant and freely given by the nursing staff.

1) “It’s okay, let’s take our time” The nurse about to start my IV senses my anxiety. She took my hand, and with warmth and compassion emitting from her face, said, “It’s okay, let’s take our time. Nothing will happen until you are okay and ready, and I take pride in doing it right for our patients like you.” She made my anxiety her concern and focused on my comfort above all.

2) “Greeted with a warm welcome” Opening my eyes for the first time post-surgery, I was greeted with a warm welcome by Brandon, the nurse assigned to me. I sense his confidence, experience, knowledge, compassion, and passion. Most important to me was how he ministered to my wife. It was such a little thing to take the time to express his encouragement and to ensure she understood what was happening with me. By tending to her, he raised my determination to recover well.

3) “Made a game out of it” Nurse Editha made a game out of which of us will most accurately guess my blood sugar readings every hour. Rather than yearning for morphine as she approached my bed, I focused on playing and winning our game. Editha was purposeful, thoughtful, and kind and gave me a mental break from the pain. She didn’t have to do this; she chose to offer this little thing, our game, for my benefit.

4) “You are my rock star” Walking around the nurse’s station for the first time after surgery, nurse Beth greeted me with a high five saying, “You are my rock star.” I didn’t get a job promotion; I didn’t win the lottery; I didn’t win an award. All I did was walk around a nurse’s station. I felt important; I felt acknowledged and valued. 

5) “Can I offer you some help?” Even the nursing staff not assigned to me made me feel valued. One day, I was stuck between half standing and half sitting as I attempted to get out of bed. Out of nowhere, a nurse is standing at my door and, with a smile, asks, “Hi, I am Carla. Can I offer you some help?” She didn’t have to stop and tend to me, but yet she did. She chose to put her duties on hold to help me out, making me feel like a priority, valued, and important. 

6) “All Done!” I was apprehensive about having two of the drainage tubes removed. Nurse practitioner, Terri, explained what would happen. After the first one was out, thinking just one more to go, I heard, “All done!” She removed both simultaneously, so I did not have to experience it twice. 

7) “We smiled at each other over the next few visits” On my way to rehabilitation, I passed the emergency room. Their attendant was seated at a desk in a glass-enclosed area. She catches my eye and smiles at me while I pass by her one day. I smile back. We smile at each other over the next few visits. I look forward to those smiles. They make me feel acknowledged. I no longer thought of myself as a broken man feeling sorry for myself.

It isn’t the high-five itself, the blood sugar game, or being called “rock star;” it is that these little things become a daily affirmation of my value, relevance, and importance as a human being. These affirmations inspire me to recover well, give back, and do the same in my life. I ask myself, rather than living a life focused on me, why not do what healthcare providers do and live focused on others by affirming their value? I conclude this is a form of love that we can give, which causes a positive impact on people.  

Creating a path to the perfect result

Overwhelmed by the profound impact the little things had on my life, I recognized these selfless, tireless workers put their life on hold for me. They gave and gave and gave, and not once did they ask for anything in return. They affirmed me, the patient, and also the staff of each other’s value, relevance, and importance, causing: 

  • My motivation to recover well and give back
  • Me to consider that perhaps I can live a better and more abundant life based upon their example?
  • Me to not only recognize how they were medicine to me, but now I wanted to be medicine for them
  • Inspiration to live a new life, I call it Life 2.0 to form

Through the example of care delivered to me by numerous, selfless, clinical, and non-clinical personnel, I set out to maximize my life, and I did through a profound transformation based upon their example. I now aspire to be a medicine for them. 

Their knowledge, skill, and teamwork gave me confidence. Their encouragement gave me hope. Their attitude and approach gave me a Life to live

There is a great deal of clinical work being done in the science of healthcare. I do not find an equivalent amount of work focused on the impact of the patient’s view of how clinical and non-clinical staff, with or without direct patient contact, can create a path to improve patient experience and create the perfect result, independent of the patient outcome. 

Across the board, we tend to overlook the role that our non-clinical functions play, including those with no direct patient contact, the patient family and loved ones, and the power to affirm value, relevance, and importance in our patients and each other. These gaps must be closed to stay on the trajectory required to achieve the perfect result.

Strategies to improve patient experience in healthcare based on patient observations 

I have made over 130 observations and perspectives to consider when stimulating the creation of new strategies to improve the patient experience. Here are my top 10:

  • The perfect patient result can be achieved, independent of patient outcome
  • It’s the little things that can yield the most significant impact.  They create passion and re-energize your patients, their loved ones, your staff, and yourselves. Identifying the little things your organization does, and creating more, is rewarding for everyone and should be recognized. Patients are like children. We see everything.
  • Staff and patients can be medicine for one another. Every positive interaction with a patient benefits both patients and staff.
  • Your strategies impact whether a patient has a great experience, returns, and promotes you.
  • Non-clinical personnel and those with no patient interaction are just as important as front-line patient caregivers when working to improve patient experience. They may interact with a family member or do something that inspires another worker, translating to the patient or family member.
  • Thanking a patient for the honor and privilege to serve them inspires and motivates your patient to return and tell others. Only on two occasions in my life have I experienced a medical professional sincerely and genuinely thank me for the opportunity to care for me. Guess who I choose to go back to for my care?
  • Ignoring family yields an incomplete picture. I once heard a Chief Nursing Officer who, while making rounds, asked a patient how she was doing and if the team was taking good care of her. The patient responds with, “yes, everything is fine.” From the corner of the room comes the daughter’s voice, “Come on, Mom, tell the truth, things are not good, and the staff is not taking good care of you.” 
  • Affirming the value, relevance, and importance of patients and each other makes people come alive, feel respected, needed, and not alone. Such affirmations are at the heart of what it means to be “patient-focused” and “patient-centric,” and they motivate patients to give back to healthcare and pay it forward to others.
  • Looking beyond patients’ faces and charts to their lives, including family and loved ones, opens the gateway to becoming world-class, and resulting in excellence patient experience.
  • Surprising patients, in a delightful way, causes them to tell others (for example, the blood sugar game, two tubes for the price of 1).

Time to create new strategies to improve patient experience and achieve the perfect result

Creating new strategies for improvement utilizing the gift of affirming value, relevance, and importance can cause improved patient, family, and staff satisfaction, outcomes, scoring, workforce preservation, and the potential for higher return and net new patients’ rates.

From a patient’s point of view, you take us into your care when we are often at our worst. You work tirelessly and selflessly to care for us, nourish us, teach us, improve us, and you never ask for anything in return. When we leave your care, we are most likely not fully recovered. You work so hard on our behalf and rarely get to see us at our best. It seems unfair, both to you and your patient, in some ways.

Demonstrating our value, relevance, and importance, which is what it means to be “patient-focused” and “patient-centric,” inspires us to give back and become medicine for your organization, leading us to experience the perfect healthcare result.

Takeaways for executives to improve patient experience in healthcare

1 Invest in all personnel across all departments to truly understand what they do, magnifying why they matter and the difference they make. Pay careful attention to how every function plays a role in achieving the perfect result. Doing so causes “buy-in “and support of strategies.
2 Adopt a service mantra aligned to your strategies and invest in having all personnel understand and articulate your organization’s core values. Doing so will unify your organization, and your patients will notice. At the core of Bingham Healthcare’s service mantra is that the most important uniform across the entire organization and functions is the patient gown, leaving no room for any personnel to wonder what the number one priority is.
3 Highlight and showcase patient successes when you see them. Celebrate the patient and the organization for contributing to that success by highlighting the little things that demonstrated value, relevance, and importance to that patient. Doing so will influence others in the organization to do the same.
4 Encourage your doctors and entire medical staff, clinical and non-clinical, to thank the patient and their loved ones for the honor and privilege to care for them. Patients and loved ones rarely experience this, even from the most seasoned medical professionals.  This will cause patients to tell others about it, one of the three ingredients to the perfect healthcare result.
5 Acknowledge each other in a personal way. Invest in continual encouragement for staff to learn each other’s names and incorporate smiles and waves into your daily cadence. Waves and smiles are infectious, especially from management, and demonstrate how you value others.
6 Every day in my calendar, I have an entry titled “Live? or Die?”. I have to make a choice each day to do nothing “Die” OR choose “Live,” which translates to doing my cardio workouts, eating right, taking my medications, reducing stress, and affirming the value of another person before the day is over. Have each of your staff members set a bar for themselves regarding what they can do, that +1, to make a difference for others. Setting a bar will help them perform at higher levels.  Patients will pick up on this. 
7 Invest in patterning your organization after a known great service company and make it your own. 
8 You deliver a service, train for that. Implement continuous training for both leadership and staff will help to improve patient experience.
9 If you personalize your strategies and approach to patients and loved ones, then personalize your business with your staff by creating and doing the “little things” for them. For example, if you want to thank someone, create a handwritten note of gratitude, and mail it to their home instead of giving it to them at work. Perhaps sponsor breakfast for employees who make a difference to their patients or each other. Recognize, reward, and celebrate the personnel who perform above their job function. Also, make sure every department has an award available to them. For example, Food Service Employee of the Year, Maintenance Employee of the year, etc. Remember, it takes everyone to improve patient experience and achieve the perfect result.

My hope and prayer are that you will remember this— As patients, we move on, we move forward, but we never forget; you are never left behind. 

Kevin Kirksey is a husband, father, Pop-Pop, speaker, author, and former cardiac ICU patient who has lived and documented his inspirational story of profound transformation to living Life 2.0 in his book Life 2.0 - A Journey From Near Death to New Life. Kevin’s journey, including the unusual set of circumstances that led to his extended and enhanced life, has been shared with many through writing, speaking, print media, the internet, and television. Although Kevin is not a medical expert, he has often been referred to as an expert patient. He articulates his perspectives, observations, and research in ways healthcare providers don’t always hear, about what they do, why they matter, and the profound difference they can make in the lives of their patients in and well beyond the healthcare setting.