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Hospitals evolving to improve human connections

A registered nurse since 2005, Edie Seffrood said, “Working clinically and being at bedsides, I just recognized how very important that connection is between caregiver and patient.” She has worked as the manager of patient experience at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center since 2018.
UCHealth/Courtesy photo

On a ski vacation to Steamboat Ski Resort in late January, intermediate-level skier and Atlanta resident Bob Keown caught an edge on a patch of ice at mid-mountain and went down hard on his shoulder.

In pain with a separated shoulder, Keown imagined himself spending the next four or five hours waiting around in an emergency room. That is a common scenario nationally that Keown knows a lot about as a professional hospital consultant for 15 years and in health care administration for 35 years.

“Good lord, I’m going to be there all day long,” Keown thought that Saturday.



To his surprise, about 1 hour and 10 minutes later, he had been transported, evaluated, X-rayed twice, treated and released and was in a nearby pub having a beer.

“That’s just short of a miracle. I kept looking at my phone thinking that can’t be right, maybe I’m in shock,” Keown said.



The consultant was so pleased with his calming, seamless treatment ranging from swift ski patrol response and transport to efficient, empathetic care at the Emergency Department at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center that he later sent an unsolicited, complimentary note to YVMC leadership.

“Your team provided the kind of service that my clients aspire to,” Keown wrote.

“What I experienced at Yampa Valley Medical Center is the peak of excellence. It’s not accidental or random. I did not get lucky. It is something that all health care organizations aspire to, but true success and being able to deliver is rare,” said Keown, back home in Atlanta and figuring out next steps for his rotator cuff injury.

As a consultant in process engineering in patient flow who earned a master’s degree in health care administration, Keown is one of many people working to continue to transform the hospital care system from something focused on maximizing the time of the most expensive assets of doctors and technology to instead focus on empathetic patient care.

Experts say patient experience in hospitals has become more of a priority and has improved gradually in the past 20 years. That evolution leads to better patient health outcomes during and after hospital visits or stays.

Emergency room visits or hospital stays across the country 20 years ago compared to today may seem like night and day experiences. Keown told one personal story of a past nightmarish seven-hour emergency room visit elsewhere when the medical staff were in disagreement about his course of care.

Yampa Valley Medical Center is one organization receiving recognition for its work in improving patient experiences as well as excellence as a rural, community hospital from such organizations as Becker’s Hospital Review, NRC Health and Chartis Center for Rural Health.

Edie Seffrood, YVMC manager of patient experience since 2018 and a registered nurse since 2005, said the local medical center puts a strong emphasis on the empathetic communication model during employee onboarding and training for all staff. That model includes mindful presence with focus and eye contact; empathetic listening where staff listens to patients’ words and body language and tone; expressing empathy by acknowledging emotions before solving medical problems; and empathetic action where staff express the help they will provide.

“We do focus on patient experience because it contributes to outcomes and how people can receive information. If someone is really anxious, they can’t take in information,” Seffrood said.

Mary Scannell, one of the regional directors of patient experience with UCHealth, said one challenge in the evolution to empathetic care is that health care professionals are natural problem-solvers with scientific mindsets who may want to jump directly into a medical diagnosis to make the patients feel better as fast as possible. Now, medical providers are trained to “take a half step back, connect with you as a person and then go into the diagnosis.” Scannell said.

“What we are evolving to is a true partnership. The physician knows how important it is to ask, to listen, to be present, so the person feels comfortable sharing,” Scannell said.

Scannell said establishing personal connection may initially seem to require more time to get to the diagnosis, when, in fact, improved patient and provider communication and trust can improve proper diagnoses and medical outcomes. Scannell said training for empathetic-based care is more common now in medical and nursing schools, “but I don’t think it’s consistent 100% across the board.”

Keown said he knows how much effort must go into providing empathetic patient care, but he also knows what a positive difference that can make.

“People looking me in the eye and telling me the same story consistently filled me with great confidence,” he said of his care in Steamboat. “I think your body is better able to heal when people understand what is going on with me.”

How to improve patient experience

UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center utilizes and teaches the patient experience pillars of “Know Me, Guide Me, Educate Me, Support Me.” Here are some excerpts:

Know me: Me personally. My context. My goals.

• Validate my perspective and speak to me like a human who genuinely cares

• Actively listen to me and let me explain in my own terms

Guide me: Be responsive, reliably stand by my side, remove barriers and give me honestly what I need.

• Deliver critical feedback and information, even when it is uncomfortable

• Proactively set me up for success

Educate me: Be knowledgeable about me, help me understand the “why” at every step, get the best out of me.

• Show how different elements are related and impact each other

• Ensure understanding before moving forward

Support me: Be empathetic, motivating and be there to catch me when I fall.

• Empathize with my situation

• Give constructive feedback in my language

• Provide actionable next steps


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