THE BLOG
10/03/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Hospitals Need to Teach Their Staff Hospitality

I recently came across an article in Crains' about a health care system hiring restaurateur and hospitality maven Danny Meyer to help their staff learn to be more hospitable. I find it ironic that hospitals need to take lessons in "hospitality" when the word hospital itself is the root of the word hospitality. Hospital comes from the Latin word hospes, which in ancient times meant a place for strangers along the way to find comfort and welcome. Obviously, this meaning has been lost in translation in our modern health care system.

Meyer operates several highly regarded restaurants in New York and formed a consulting arm, Hospitality Quotient, or HQ, following the success of his book, The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business (Harper Collins,2006). Last year, AdvantageCare hired HQ to train its entire staff, including doctors, on how to be more empathetic (see my blog on that subject). Full-day workshops teach the medical staff how to interact with patients in a friendly manner rather than with curt one word answers to a request. A patient is a guest who can take his or her business elsewhere. This seems to be a novel idea in health,care, but it may be gaining more traction. Similar workshops were given back in 2011 when the Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga hired The Ritz Carlton hotels to give customer service lessons to all 4,500 employees.

While health,care and hospitality today are different businesses, they are the same in that both are about caring for people who come to you for a service. There are still vast differences, however, in how they approach that service. One particularly glaring example comes from a friend of mine who had broken her kneecap falling on black ice last winter. Before her consultation with the doctor at a well-regarded New York hospital, she was sent down the hall to get an X-ray. Without so much as a "hello and how are you," the technician simply pointed to a low metal slab indicating the woman should lie down there. This metal slab, about a foot off the floor, without handrail or padding was extremely difficult to negotiate without assistance, and impossible when your very painful knee doesn't bend. Sadly, this type of encounter is the norm in many hospitals. In this case, my friend decided to fix the situation herself by questioning the technician about where to put her coat; did he have a pillow and some padding for the "slab," and would he mind helping her get into position. She did this only because she liked the doctor who was treating her and she later told him in no uncertain terms they needed to teach some manners to the technicians.

Imagine if you went into a restaurant and the host without smiling or offering a greeting just pointed to a table, did not ask if you wanted to hang up your coat, and did not assist in seating you. You would never go back. (And that host would be fired.) Even banks, once considered cold and dour institutions, teach their staff how to make small talk with clients. "How is your day going? Is there anything else I can help you with?" And while it is obvious that the bank staff has been coached, people do respond and it makes the time there much more pleasant and the transactions smoother.

A few years ago, The Daily Mail in London surveyed hospital complaints and published their report about the rudest hospitals in the U.K. The list of examples was long and painful. A nurse yanked the pillow from under the head of a patient who had just died while her family was still around her saying their goodbyes. Another nurse yelled at elderly patients because she assumed all elderly people were hard of hearing. A doctor spoke on his cell phone during a consultation. Verbal abuse and rudeness topped the list and complaints. When the newspaper asked the National Health Services (NHS) about it, they were told, "Manners are a luxury we can't afford." (The same NHS in a survey of their own found that good bedside manner can shorten hospital stays. More irony!)

I hope more health care systems will follow the lead of AdvantageCare and help all of their employees learn proper bedside manner.

It is fun to imagine some extremes in the other direction, such as being asked about your choice of hospital rooms depending upon size, décor, or the view out the window (which, by the way, is a very important component in patient well-being). Would you like a different color sheet and pillow case for your bed? We also have florals and plaids. How about the blanket, is it warm enough? We can offer you a choice of sleepwear and loungewear from our extensive collection of gently used outfits left us by past residents. If you are unhappy with your roommate, we can help you choose another with match.com. How are you enjoying that Picasso print on the wall, the woman with several faces? If it upsets you, perhaps we can change it to a still life with flowers.

Now, perhaps if Danny Meyer can exert his influence on the food, hospitals would truly be more hospitable. But that's another story.