Staying Alive: The Best Patient Experience of All

By Kathleen BartholomewHot TopicsLeave a Comment

Patient Experience

A Patient Experience Officer for a large hospital chain agreed to join me for lunch one day, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn. For fifteen minutes she listed numerous awards the system had won and praised their ‘very high satisfaction scores.’ I just listened.

After lunch however, she shared that she was suddenly a patient a few months ago at her own hospital and feared that serious mistakes were being made in her care. She was so worried that she ‘had to call administration for help.’ I commented, “Maybe staying alive is the best patient experience of all.”  Blank stare.

“As the head of the ‘Patient Experience,’ have you read any books written by patients?” I asked.  She paused, and slowly responded, “No.” I recommended starting with Kathy Torpie’s story of undergoing years of reconstructive surgery after a head-on crash with a drunk driver. The powerful impact of being treated as an individual by kind and caring healthcare professionals had a profound impact on her healing. This was especially true in the ICU where she awoke vulnerable and frightened. One particular surgeon was a contrast to the several others who did not “see” her:

“…of all my surgeons (he) healed wounds so deep that no scalpel could reach them. He made me feel like an attractive, intelligent, courageous and worthwhile human being. Not a set of clinical challenges, or something broken and in need of repair.”

Today, as patients struggle to connect with their caregivers, Patient Experience Officers collect up to $300,000 salaries. Meanwhile, nurses and physicians struggle to keep patients alive knowing that hospital errors are the third leading cause of death in America; and that one in every three or four patients will experience preventable harm. The gap between what we need, and what we have, could not be wider. This is the black hole where more than 400,000 patients perish every year.

How did the patient experience and patient safety become mutually exclusive?

Every time I see an ad for a patient experience executive I wonder just how lost a profession can be:

“He or she will manage the provider coaching program to improve provider/patient interaction… including but not limited to developing intentional, individual, and interactive scripting appropriate for various settings, as well as implementing other customer service tools.”

I don’t need a script to improve interactions with my patients. What I need is TIME – not a patient experience officer!  Time to think and gather myself so that I can be truly present. Time to meet my own needs so that I can meet the patients’ unique psychological and emotional needs.  Racing like a road runner to complete the more than 240 tasks required in a single shift while juggling 6-8 patients – or trying to stay on the conveyor belt of operating room turn-around times that run with the same speed efficiency ethic of a Jiffy Lube – doesn’t afford any caregiver the conditions for being truly present.

This reactionary and manipulative myopia on the patient experience is being driven by money and a total lack of understanding of what providers actually need. The only reason the position was created was because hospital reimbursements are now tied to patient satisfaction (HCHAPPS).   Maybe they should be tied to patient survival and transparency around clinical outcomes?

We need to wake up. Is it really easier to budget for an executive position, expensive training and scripting education than to ask physicians and nurses what they need to deliver excellent care?


James, J. (2013). A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care. Journal of Patient Safety, 9(3).

Levinson, Daniel (2010). Adverse Events in Hospitals: National Incidence Among Medicare Beneficiaries. Available at: Accessed January 16, 2015.

Torpie, K. (2005). Losing face: A memoir of lost identity and self-discovery. Auckland: HarperCollins.

Hearts in Healthcare. The Movement for Human-centred Healthcare. Kathy’s Story: Available at: Accessed January 16, 2015.

About the Author
Kathleen Bartholomew

Kathleen Bartholomew

As the former manager of a 57-bed surgical unit in Seattle, Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, quickly recognized that creating a culture where staff felt a sense of belonging was critical to retention. She is an expert on hospital culture and has been a national speaker for the nursing profession for the past 11 years. She has spoken to hospital boards, leadership and the military about safety, communication, cultural change and power. In 2016, Bartholomew presented a TEDx Talk in San Juan Island on “Lessons from Nursing to the World.” With her husband, John J. Nance, she coauthored, Charting the Course: Launching Patient-Centric Healthcare.

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