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"It's not about genetics, or whether you're a Scorpio woman."
Hopkins, At Your Service
Across the entire medical enterprise, there's renewed emphasis on how we impress our patients-and each other.

One excellent team. Clockwise from center, Donna Nemec, Sandra Bailey, Kelly Mercer, Linda Nauman and Gwen Henderson, at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center at Green Spring Station, won a quarterly Catch A Shining Star award, nominated by a patient who insisted they be recognized as a group. While thrilled by the honor, all say providing stellar service is its own reward. "Patients look to us for help, but they're the ones who inspire us," says Nauman.

Have You Seen a Shining Star?
Johns Hopkins Medicine is committed to identifying employees -- from all its entities -- who demonstrate their care and concern for patients and co-workers.
The Power of Listening
It's the simple things that make people feel special.
Getting on the Good Foot
What patients and their families notice most is how they're treated as people

When Gwen Henderson learned last year that a patient had nominated her for the Oncology Center's Humanitarian Award for Clinical Service, what surprised her was her own reaction.
"I've always been a service-oriented person," says Henderson, a patient coordinator at Green Spring Station who's focused her entire career on working with people, first as a supervisor on a production line, then as a manager for a staffing company. "I've been recognized for going the extra mile and being a team player. But getting that nomination opened my eyes. No matter what we do, we're under the microscope. When you think no one's watching, they are. Even though the patients who come in here are very ill-they may slump in the waiting area and barely look at you-they're really watching."

Henderson's point goes straight to the heart of a stepped-up Service Excellence campaign, debuting this month, to help employees of every Hopkins Medicine entity polish customer service. Called "Turn Up the Heat," the campaign is homing in on first impressions-the myriad clues we all process to decide whether we're being welcomed or shunted aside.

Smiling, of course, goes a long way. But what the campaign isn't, says Carol Woodward, is smile school. "It's about what we say, how we say it, and what people see. There are lots of opportunities. Each patient encounter is a first impression."
Woodward, senior project manager for Hopkins Hospital's human resources department, is a member of the Service Excellence action group, a committee headed by Hopkins Hospital Executive Vice President Judy Reitz and staffed by representatives from every entity. One of the goals in working on first impressions, she says, is to improve patients' satisfaction with the non-medical aspects of their care: things like sensitivity to inconvenience, wait times and insurance hassles. But, she adds, employees are people, too. "We are each other's customers. Employee satisfaction also should go up if we treat each other better."

It's What You Say
"Good afternoon. My name is Gwen and I'm going to verify your medical information."

For anyone whose life has been upended by a fearsome medical diagnosis, just getting through treatment is daunting. Add appointments and referrals and records and authorizations, and the feeling that your life has spun hopelessly out of control can be overwhelming.

Patient services coordinator Gwen Henderson and her co-workers at Hopkins' Green Spring Station oncology center so impressed one patient that she insisted the entire group deserved recognition. In nominating them for Catch A Shining Star, the Service Excellence awards program Hopkins inaugurated last September, the patient said, "It was almost a pleasure to go for treatment. The staff gave me hugs, encouragement and smiles. No request was too much. They are always caring, concerned, careful and responsive."

Though each employee has her own take on their collective achievement in winning one of the quarterly awards, all agree that remembering to see things from the patient's point of view is key-and not always easy when their daily caseload can number as many as 60.

"I like to make patients feel important one-to-one," says nurse clinician Linda Nauman. "Just knowing and using the person's name when they come in shows you care."
"It's already a stressful time for them," agrees patient services coordinator Donna Nemec, who, like Henderson, schedules and coordinates appointments and helps patients iron out their insurance difficulties. "I try to let them know ahead of time what to expect. Even though there are a lot of demands on our time-you can spend hours on insurance issues-I try to spend as much time as I can with each patient. It's not like this is a mill or an assembly line."

"You talk to people, not at them," adds Henderson. "You treat everyone with the utmost respect-you never know when you're gonna be on that side of the desk. Maybe you don't always feel your best, but you take ownership and do your job when you come to work. Now when someone's having a difficult day, I may go in the bathroom and go, Grrrr, but I come back out and I'm smiling. And it gets good results."

"You have to realize that there are people who are difficult in life, and when they're hit with cancer, well, you're not gonna change their personality," explains Kelly Mercer, a 16-year veteran of oncology nursing. "If a patient is yelling at you, take a break, walk away, compose yourself. You can't take it personal."

It's How You Say It
"Ms. Johnson, I can help you with that."

When Jauné Cary's telephone rings, she knows before she even answers that the caller has a problem.

A customer service representative for Johns Hopkins HealthCare, the Health System's medical insurance arm, Cary fields inquiries from medical-assistance patients enrolled in Hopkins' Medicaid managed care program, Priority Partners. Many callers are either very young or very old, and struggle to understand both their benefits and their responsibilities. "Customer service," says Cary, "is basically educating the customer. The real meat of my job is teaching enrollees not just about their health insurance, but about health care."

The two-day customer-service training Cary got when she stepped into her post a year ago has proved invaluable to her. The program teaches practical skills-how to put someone on hold, calm them if they're irate, handle your own reactions.
Just avoiding words like maybe and hopefully, says Maura Walden, JHHC's director of training and performance improvement, is important. "How would you feel," she asks, "if you were on a plane and the pilot said, Hopefully, we'll be landing at BWI in 10 minutes?"

Concern over prescription coverage is a recurring theme for Cary's customers. "Telling them, 'I can assist you with that' really prevents complaints and gives them confidence," she says. And if we can't do what they want, I try to back it up with an alternative. They don't mind holding if you tell them what you're doing."

Among the biggest stumbling blocks to providing excellent service, says Walden, is thinking it takes too much time. And feeling that it's not in the employee's control.
"Our customer service reps have to take a lot of calls each day, so they've got to be fast, but the quality has to be there, too," she says. "It doesn't take longer to treat people well. If they're upset, express empathy. Tell them you will help. Be specific about what you'll do and when you'll do it. Make sure they agree with the solution you propose. So often we focus on what we're unable to do, but there's always something we can do, even if it's just getting the customer one step closer to a solution."

Walden understands that if someone starts out being rude or angry, the knee-jerk reaction is, Well, I'm not gonna be nice to that person. But, she emphasizes, "No one can make you be rude-it's not about genetics, or whether you're a Scorpio woman," she says. "You are in control. Instead, you can say, Mr. Jones, I can help you with that, but I can't take that abusive language."

"You have to remember," adds Green Spring Station's Donna Nemec, "that it's not you, it's the situation. When I have a person on the phone who's too upset, I say, Could you hold for a minute please? When I come back, a lot of times, they're a different person-they don't have the same verbiage, they get to the point."

It's What They See
"I was really impressed that staff brought in chairs to accommodate the family."

Every work group has issues: too many meetings, dysfunctional systems, personality conflicts, the list goes on. How employees-and managers-deal with such internal sore spots affects not only their own equilibrium, but that of visitors as well.

"The patient who nominated us for the Catch A Shining Star Award never came in without complimenting us on how well we all work together," says Green Spring Station oncology nurse Kelly Mercer. "I think it helps that we all understand and respect each other's jobs."

"We're a small group, so everyone needs to know what everyone else is doing," agrees administrative manager Sandra Bailey. "We have a monthly staff meeting for everyone, including the doctors and the nurse manager from the East Baltimore campus. We brainstorm, trouble shoot, make plans for improvement. It's a group effort."

"At a satellite location like Green Spring, there may not be another person to follow through," explains Donna Nemec, "so you have to take the ball, you have to know how to take care of everything from beginning to end. If one person's not here, another one jumps in. We kinda know each other's next steps."

Not that it's always been smooth sailing. "We've worked on being open with each other," says Linda Nauman. "We've come a long way as a team. It's like getting married-it took everybody's effort."
Still, as Gwen Henderson puts it, "If the group is satisfied, the customers are extra satisfied." And that, she says, proves one thing.
"Wow! They're still watching."

-Mary Ann Ayd



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