Healthcare delivery the Disney way

My daughter let slip the helium balloon we had just bought her for a fraction of a second--long enough for a tearful catastrophe.

Within another 30 seconds, a member of the Disneyland security staff--replete with a mouse ear-shaped silhouette badge he had in a billfold--was on his walkie-talkie ordering up a replacement.

Disaster averted, Disney-style.

The headquarters of "The Happiest Place on Earth" has slowly exported its legendary customer service into the private sector through its Disney Institute affiliate. But where its services are being applied is especially telling.

Six of the 17 case studies detailed on the Disney Institute website are healthcare clients. Four of those are hospitals.

Any business as well run as Disney is going to carefully select a representative cross-section of outcomes and testimonials. That, and an article in last Sunday's New York Times, strongly suggests this flyweight subsidiary of an entertainment conglomerate is slowly remaking healthcare delivery.

Some of the changes the Disney Institute implements are simple, if not corny: hiring a ukulele player for the lobby of a children's hospital, requiring employees not to use cell phones in patient areas and bringing the father of a patient his favorite cookies. It's enough to make even the least self-absorbed neurologist (renamed "brain surgeon" in Disney parlance) on a hospital's staff roll their eyes.

But given the new financial pressures percolating in the hospital environment, this makes perfect sense. These patients and their families--many of whom have to cough up thousands of dollars in co-pays and deductibles--will return. And given that Medicare soon will be linking payments to patient satisfaction, the solvency of many hospitals could be at stake.

And hospitals, let's face it, are places where not only customer service often goes to die, but also too many executives presume it is in a state of permanent "DNR" (do-not-resuscitate). That needs to change.

Disney has come under criticism, but it's mostly from media outlets that only do sarcasm, such as the New York Post, or Midwest outposts whose residents don't regularly visit Disney's amusement parks.

I've been to Disney World and Disneyland Paris once each. I've visited Disneyland --an hour's drive from my house--scores of times since I was a little kid. They all cost a lot of money, but even a preternatural grump such as myself cannot find any faults. The parks are incredibly well-planned, spotless and staffed with preternaturally cheerful people who have been trained to defuse virtually any complaint (even the one in France). I've also been to all the other major amusement parks in Southern California. They charge about 80 percent of the Disneyland pricetag, but are indifferent cesspools by comparison.

Which place would you want to go? Which would you pick if they also performed gallbladder removal?

There will have to be one thing that hospitals have to balance: the fact that patient satisfaction is often at odds with overall outcomes.

But working on customer service--even if it is the sometimes-cloying Disney way--is a start. Continue in the other direction, and there's always the risk of everything slowly floating away, never to return. - Ron (@FierceHealth)