Industry Voices—What healthcare can learn from theme parks. Yes, theme parks

There is an emerging recognition in healthcare of the power of experience to affect our capacity to improve both the process and outcomes of care.

Patients who feel a sense of ease, clarity and connection in their interactions with their physicians are likely to be more communicative about their needs and more accepting of their doctor’s recommendations.

Providers who are not distracted by nonclinical tasks and stressors are able to more fully focus on the needs of their patients. In short, a better experience for all means healthier patients.

Yet our systems of care are still designed around the needs of the organization over those of patients, who have to struggle with labyrinthine phone menus or complicated websites to access care. Then there’s the corral-like waiting areas, exam rooms where you wait in a paper gown and staff who can’t make eye contact while they focus on entering data into a computer.

The consequences of poorly designed or considered experiences is increasingly recognized as part of the process of care delivery, as seen the rise of new titles in health systems: chief experience officer (CXO) or vice president of patient experience. Whatever you call them, these are executive-level positions that are empowered to move health institutions toward improving patient experience.

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In reality, though, these new roles sometimes struggle with their place in a traditionally siloed system. They are often relegated to managing the financial implications of payer reimbursements’ ties to patient satisfaction scores, which may only be considered through the filter of "customer service" or hospitality.

This can have unintended consequences. After all, if experience is just another way of saying hospitality, we are relegating it to the spaces before and after care is actually delivered rather than the continuum by which it is experienced.

Immersive, transformative experiences

How can the healthcare experience be vastly improved? Stick with me here, but the path forward can actually be found in other industries that have done much of the work for us.

Consider, of all places, theme parks. They’ve perfected the concept of immersive, transformative experiences.

Think about it: People will spend thousands of dollars to wait in line for two hours for a 90-second ride at Disney World, and leave happy—happy!—to do it all over again. There's a lesson to be learned there. And this is done despite the fact that the vast majority of employees that guests interact with—that are burdened with representing the brand minute by minute—are hourly employees who do not have specialized training. 

As a result of this forethought, at Disneyland or Universal Studios you forget where you are, and you forget who you are. You are completely immersed in the experience and at the same time transformed. “Immersive” and “transformational” are two words patients would rarely use to describe their healthcare experiences, yet I can’t think of anything that’s more immersive and transformational than an emergency department visit, a colonoscopy or surgery.

Yet, excluding emergencies, 30% of patients will simply leave if they have to wait for too long at the doctor’s office. Their health should be more important than a theme park ride, but the experience is so terrible it’s not worth the wait.

You might think it’s simple fun that makes the difference. That’s true, but look closer at theme parks and other attractions to see the parallels to healthcare. People think of theme parks as entertainment, but it’s actually secondary to factors like guest safety, operational rigor and clarity, and the finely tuned sequencing of events that create the magic. 

It’s not entertainment, it’s logistics.

Theme parks don’t talk about customer service, or hospitality—they ask what the intent and purpose of the experience is and work backward from there. There might be thoughtful touches on the long line. There might be clear signals in dress and signage about what is coming next and who can help if needed. 

A significant mental shift

Admittedly, adopting a similar approach to experience design in a healthcare system requires a significant mental shift. Hence why, when faced with such massive change, executives often find so much comfort in their silos. 

That change obviously can’t just come from a single-unit leader. It needs to be under the purview of a CEO or chief operating officer, someone who can lead the idea of a holistic patient experience and champion the idea that how we design and manage experience transcends departmental focus.

While this approach does require a serious change in thinking, it’s actually not that hard to get started.

Let’s think of starting with two basic premises: one, that physicians went to medical school to genuinely help people and, two, that patients want to connect with and trust their doctors. 

While economics and administrative pressures of healthcare put added pressure on physicians, there are some simple steps they can take to humanize the care they deliver: First, sit eye to eye with a patient when you arrive in the exam room, and second, start every interview with a simple question: “What do I need to know to help you today?”

Such a simple question, leveled without the computer blocking the view, can yield such critical information and make the patient experience vastly better right from the start.

When physicians are forced to behave like technicians, this chance for seeing the whole person—and treating them that way—is missed forever. And the doctor is reduced to assembly line healthcare.

It starts with an audit

Most healthcare organizations and  practices have a number of experience-related programs, assets or other resources, but rarely are they organized into a cohesive, integrated experience management plan. By performing an initial assessment of your current experience processes, you’ll also likely also find areas where you’re spending money that you don’t need to.

Just look at the data, and ask whether the process is providing the results you’re looking for.

For instance, I know of a health system that designed its service lines around their potential for reimbursement and touted its expertise around services like back pain and cardiology. Yet a demographic assessment of the population within a 10-mile radius of the system revealed the median resident age to be 36, with 75% having young children.

Patient experience clearly isn’t even a consideration when you’ve tailored that experience to the people who are least likely to be your patients. But by having some data, they could at least know where to start.

Theme parks have become experts at experiential design because their financial existence depends on it. Soon, that will also be the case with health systems. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask the millions of people who stand in line every year, willingly giving their time, money and loyalty to those that have already figured it out.

Steven Merahn, M.D., is a managing director at Thinkwell Group and has extensive experience as an executive for marketing agencies and large-scale health systems. Cynthia Sharpe is a principal, museums and cultural attractions at Thinkwell Group.