Healthcare workers' perceived role and the patient experience

Three men are laying bricks. Someone goes up to the first and asks, "What are you doing?" He replies, "Laying bricks." The inquisitor moves to the second and inquires, "Sir, what are you doing?" He responds, "Feeding my family." Doug Della Pietra

Finally, the questioner asks the same question to the third man laying bricks who says, "I am working here with a great team! We are building a magnificent cathedral that many will visit and that will be here for years and years after I am gone."

How do people at your hospital answer the following question when asked, "What are you doing?" or "What do you do here?" How do you wish they would answer? (See my desired response in a couple paragraphs.)


You may recall the story I shared last December in "4 key ingredients for creating an exceptional patient experience" about the maintenance man at a local hospital who compassionately offered to assist my mom when he saw her holding a wall-rail while catching her breath. That simple act of empathy and compassion made a lasting impact on me.

If we followed up with that maintenance man and asked what he did at the hospital, I wonder if he would say the usual sorts of job description tasks like:

  • "I repair equipment"
  • "I fix electrical switches/outlets"
  • "I put together new machinery and equipment"
  • "I do some general cleaning"
  • "I keep up and routine preventive maintenance projects"
  • "Laying bricks" (I had to throw that one in there!)

Or might he surprise and inspire us, as happened to President Kennedy? The story goes that when Kennedy visited NASA headquarters he saw a janitor mopping the floor nearby. Kennedy stopped his tour, walked over, extended his hand to shake the janitor's, introduced himself--"Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy"--and asked, "What are you doing?"

Instead of responding with the typical laundry-list of janitorial duties and tasks he said, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President."

If anyone at my hospital--from senior leader to nurse to housekeeper to physician to maintenance man to valet to volunteer--was asked "What do you do here?," I hope they would answer with something like, "I help to heal" or "I help people live their lives more fully."

Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Delos "Toby" Cosgrovedescribes one of the first and critical steps the hospital took to launch its cultural transformation and patient experience efforts:

"As of 2006, we no longer called them 'employees.' They became 'caregivers,' because each one of them plays a role in patient care. There are no minor tasks in healthcare. Every action contributes to patient outcomes, which is why we're working toward total engagement. Studies have shown that workforce engagement is linked to patient safety, quality, outcomes and patient satisfaction. Caregivers need to be engaged to have a positive impact on patients--and their fellow caregivers."

Cosgrove goes on in his most recent blog: "The move by Medicare and other payers to reward patient satisfaction is important. But it will not make or break our institutions. The real motivation for change needs to come from the heart. Not everything can be measure by ROI. We can’t forget why we became doctors and nurses and administrators. In the final analysis, we work for a better patient experience because it's the right thing to do."

Intuitively, we know that remaining in touch with why we chose healthcare in the first place makes a difference. Creating opportunities for caregivers to reflect on purpose, calling and mission--as fellow Hospital Impact bloggerAnthony Cirillo and others are rightly championing--reinvigorates and re-energizes that place of abundance within us where we desire and compassionately choose to help others heal and live their lives to the full.

The answer to "What do you do here?" does affect the patient experience.

Doug Della Pietra is the director of Customer Services and Volunteers for Rochester General Hospital in New York, where he directs an intentionally-designed patient- and family-centered volunteer program, oversees the front-line valet and guest services teams, and co-chairs the hospital's Patient Experience Team. Follow Doug @DougDellaPietra on Twitter.