Hospital Impact: Patient experience lessons from United Airlines' passenger-dragging incident

United Airlines Editorial
United Airlines faced a deluge of backlash when a passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight was violently dragged off the plane. (United Airlines)

"Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what's right."
— Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Airlines, after a passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight

Anthony Cirillo headshot

That quote should be a mantra for how providers should approach care, because providers often forget that there is a patient at the center of what we do. An attendee at my recent keynote before the Montana Gerontology Society echoed this when she commented:

I identified very strongly with some of the personal experiences you encountered while caring for your mother, in which it seems some providers forgot that patient healthcare problems are attached to people, who are attached to families and larger contexts.”

When speaking to groups about the patient experience, I use three slides to illustrate how and why providers often get so bogged down in trying to provide the best experience that we completely lose common sense.


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The first slide shows a picture of a nursing home policy booklet on “Death and Dying in Long-Term Care Facilities.” I then show a quote from a person who posted the picture to his Flickr account that said: “So, if you die in a long-term care facility without following the operational guidelines, do they make you die all over again (correctly this time)?”

The audience usually chuckles, but the point is obvious.

I then show a convoluted troop movement map that was presented to General Stanley A. McChrystal in Afghanistan, who remarked "when we understand that slide, we'll have won the war." I note that we love to map stuff in patient experience and then script people with artificial solutions.

The third slide shows a picture of a janitor, and I ask the audience to name his job. Of course, they respond, “environmental services worker.” I then show a logo for NASA and ask “what is his job now?” For the older folks who were around or recall, in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy charged man to go to the moon. The NASA employee’s job, as he rightfully told visitors, was to put a man on the moon. He got the ultimate connection between what he did, and the ultimate purpose and benefit of it. Are your employees connected at that level?

For me, patient experience means we have to do a better job with listening and communication. It’s common sense. When we listen better and communicate better, things get done correctly and efficiently, and that improves safety and quality. As outgoing Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, M.D., once said at a past patient experience conference, “The real measure of patient experience comes from the heart.”

If the United employees and security officers involved in this now-infamous incident had taken a breath first before acting, it could have played out differently. How many times a day does that play out in healthcare?

Anthony Cirillo is president of The Aging Experience. He helps organizations craft experiences and seize opportunities in the mature marketplace, and helps family caregivers thrive and individuals make educated aging decisions. A consultant and professional speaker, Anthony is also an executive board member of the Dementia Action Alliance.

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