Simple Things Make a Big Difference

My first career experience in health care started at the age of 15 as a certified nursing assistant in my local small town nursing home. I have many stories about that time in my life and realize now, how it helped structure my future career in nursing and my current approach to improving the patient experience. I learned to understand the needs of patients at a very young age, simply because I had a strong desire to make their day the best it could be. I empathized with their situation and wanted to help them regain some control in their life, even if it was through the smallest action.


One memory rises to the top. I worked afternoon shifts regularly as I was attending high school during the day. My duties included evening snacks and helping patients get ready for bed. One particular night, I was assisting a female patient who asked if I could get her a cup of cold coffee. I told her I could certainly do that, but was curious as to why she would like her coffee to be cold. She told me that when she was a young girl, her mother would let her drink coffee with her but didn't want her to get burned, so her coffee was always cold. As she was telling me the story, she smiled, paused and said, "When I drink cold coffee, I remember those times with my mother and it makes me happy again."


We believe that the patient experience is influenced by many factors that we must continually assess and prioritize, according to the highest patient and family impact.I still remember how I felt at that moment and needed to make sure she received cold coffee every evening regardless of whether I worked or not. I spoke with the charge nurse and asked if she could add this request to the patient's care plan and also left a message for the kitchen. Such a simple thing to do that could make a difference for this patient who suffered many limitations in her life and spent most evenings alone.


This story serves as an ongoing reminder of two things. First, often what our patients need are small things and secondly, what I think is important for the patient may not be the most important thing to them. The only way we truly know what our patients need and how they feel is to ask them. If this patient had not explained how drinking cold coffee made her feel, I am not sure I would have taken the time to talk to the nurse and notify the kitchen. The patient experience is unique to every individual and is a combination of many factors that precede our moments with our patients and families.


I often use a formula I developed to explain the patient experience: Standardization + Individualization = Exceptional Patient Experience. We often spend the majority of our time on the standardization element, when patients are really looking for individualization. Both elements are important and necessary, but our patients "feel" and reflect upon the individualization element—what happened during their own care experience—rather than the technical aspects of their care.


UW Health is committed to improving the patient experience. It may seem simple, but it is actually quite complex. My dyad/physician partner, Dr. Emily Winslow and I believe that our employees come to work every day with the intention of providing high quality care to our patients. We also believe that the patient experience is influenced by many factors that we must continually assess and prioritize, according to the highest patient and family impact.


As we move forward, three areas of focus will help us structure our work: people, processes and place. Nurses in our organization play an especially significant role in how patients and families experience UW Health. Every day they have the power to change lives through extraordinary means that are often defined by our patients as small, yet significant actions of listening, compassion and empathy. Together, we look forward to working with them and all staff and faculty on this journey to excellence.