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Improving the Patient Experience ‘Disney Style’: A Q&A With Jake Poore

Posted by Lisa Eramo on Jan 11, 2021 10:00:00 AM

If you ask Jake Poore whether healthcare providers can learn anything from Disney, he’ll tell you yes. In fact, there’s enough to write a book and an online class on the topic, and that’s exactly what he did. In 99 Lessons Learned from Disney to Improve the Patient Experience, this former Disney leader describes how to design world-class service and care, manage wait times, and help providers understand that clinical care (quality) and human kindness (service) are not mutually exclusive. Following is a summary of a recent conversation with Poore on the topic of how to improve the overall patient experience based on lessons learned while working for nearly two decades at Disney.

Q: You have an interesting professional background that puts a new spin on the patient experience. Tell me about that.

 Poore: Yes, much of my experience took place at Disney where I learned how to create a stellar customer experience. It began in college when I participated in the Disney College Program, a paid internship where I gained hands-on experience learning from vice presidents of various divisions within the company. From there, I served in several roles ranging from research and development, special press events coordinator, film and television production, and sales manager. When Disney launched the Disney Institute in 1996, I started developing customized training sessions for healthcare clients. We showed them how to adopt Disney principles in their own companies to improve the patient experience. For example, the Sharp Experience at Sharp Healthcare in San Diego, California, was designed in a Disney Institute classroom. I’ve worked with Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Cigna Medical Group, Ochsner Health System, Mayo Clinic, and many others. I left Disney in 2001 to start my own consulting firm, Integrated Loyalty Systems, where I assist healthcare organizations in hardwiring human kindness into every step of their clinical and operational processes. 

Q: It’s interesting that you can apply Disney’s principles to healthcare. How are you able to make that connection?

 Poore: Disney and healthcare providers are both in the service industry—they exist to please their ‘guests’ or patients. That’s the one main aspect in common. The difference is that Disney chooses to acknowledge it. Walt Disney once said that Disney is in the service industry, but they use attractions and hotels to provide the service. CEOs of other nonhealthcare companies have made similar statements. Zappos, for example, is in the service industry, but they use shoes to provide the service. Southwest Airlines is in the service industry, but they use airplanes to do it. Healthcare providers view the patient experience as secondary to clinical care. That’s because in healthcare, there’s no collective ‘why’ or mission tied to service. Everyone works in a silo. If you ask someone at Disney to identify their role, they’ll tell you they’re there to create happiness. Maybe they do that by performing in a show, selling food, picking up garbage, or cleaning the bathrooms. We need that same mentality in healthcare. We need to connect people to purpose. We need to have a collective “why.”

Q: Why is it so challenging for healthcare providers to move the needle on the patient experience?

 Poore: Healthcare providers get stuck in a rut and have difficulty innovating. They do things the same way because that’s always how they’ve done it. However, the genie is out of the bottle, and consumers are demanding a change. Providers need to adapt because consumers will increasingly choose a provider based on clinical and service excellence. If providers think that smiling and making eye contact will be enough, they’re fooling themselves. It’s going to take a whole lot more than that.

 Q: What are some of the most important lessons you learned at Disney that you think can benefit healthcare providers?

 Poore: In addition to connecting people to purpose, I’d say it’s critical to hire the right people. Just because someone has an RN or MD after their name doesn’t mean a right fit. You want people who are genuinely nice and who are dedicated to creating a positive patient experience. For example, ask potential candidates to watch a pre-employment video in which you describe your practice’s values and mission. Let candidates know that if the video doesn’t resonate with them, they should not apply for the position.

 Another lesson is that Disney puts the customer at the center of everything. That’s why, for example, cast members park in a parking lot that’s more than a mile away and take a bus into the parks so guests can take advantage of prime parking. Does your practice do something similar? Do staff members go out of their way to make sure patients are comfortable and that their needs are met? For example, instead of calling out a patient’s name into a waiting room full of people, consider this more personalized approach: Ask the receptionist to jot down a few details about the person (e.g., hair color and short description of their clothing). Then a medical assistant can easily approach them directly and personally introduce themselves before taking them back to an exam room.

 A third lesson is to differentiate between what I like to call ‘onstage’ and ‘offstage’ behavior. When and where is it appropriate to eat lunch? It doesn’t make patients happy to see a sign on the plexiglass window at the front desk stating ‘no food or drink in the waiting area’ when the receptionist is permitted to have lunch at her desk. The same is true for ‘no cell phone use in the waiting area’ when the receptionist is permitted to take a personal call on their cell phone in plain sight. When and where is it appropriate to vent or talk about personal issues? Talking in the hallway outside an exam room, for example, is not appropriate. Patients can hear you. The same is true for venting directly to patients. Patients should not know that the practice is short staffed on a particular day or that a certain physician is particularly ornery. Remember, it’s all about creating a positive experience. Disney strives to provide a good show, and anything that detracts, distracts, or erodes that is bad show, and it is not tolerated. The same should be true in healthcare.

 Finally, manage wait times. Disney is a master of distracting or entertaining people while they wait. Healthcare providers can do the same thing. Let people know whether each physician is running on time or behind schedule (and by how much). Focus on providing a comfortable waiting area with a TV and enough outlets so everyone can charge their mobile devices.

 Q: What should healthcare providers think about in terms of using technology to improve the patient experience? Any advice?

 Poore: Remember to always first ask this question: How will the technology build a better experience? High tech does not always drive high touch. Even though Disney invested $1 billion into its new magic band technology, what they did first was map out each step of the guest experience. They then asked this question: How will this technology enable us to better connect with families and improve their overall experience? That’s how Disney came up with features that enable ticketless guest admission to their parks and attractions as well as the ability to immediately receive professional photographs on their phones as they are taken, make restaurant reservations, pre-order food, pay for merchandise, open hotel and cruise ship room doors, and more—all by simply permitting someone to scan their bracelet.

 Medical practices don’t need to invest a billion dollars into another new technology, they need to first leverage the technology they already have and ask this question: What would patients want more or less of? Patients want to check in and get all their paperwork done before they arrive (just like the airlines). They’d like you to address them by the name they prefer to be called, estimate the wait time, and immediately communicate any delays. Create seamless handoffs between care team members. I think if we first identify the problems and opportunities, then solutions and technology will follow.

Lisa Eramo

Written by Lisa Eramo

Lisa A. Eramo, MA is a Rhode Island-based healthcare journalist who contributes to various trade publications covering topics such as health information management, health information technology, medical coding, and clinical documentation improvement. She also assists clients with content marketing efforts. Visit www.lisaeramo.com for more information.