Mayo treats patients as people

Published 10:28 am Monday, July 14, 2008

A man with a Mayo Clinic nametag asked, “Can I help you?” I couldn’t control my curiosity any longer and asked, “Were you trained to do this?” I just had to ask, because the ubiquitous and totally predictable customer-friendly attitude at Mayo doesn’t just happen. It is created and practiced by people who know what they are doing: Businesses and organizations succeed and prosper when wholesome customer relations, as well as quality products and service, have become part of the corporate or institutional culture —expected from the top and owned to the bottom.

This particular individual happened to be a pharmacist, but he could have been from any department or of any rank, because I have both observed and experienced this throughout the Clinic and its affiliate hospitals on almost every visit. Test my theory. Stand in a hallway anywhere in its many buildings and look as if you’re lost (which really isn’t hard to be). Count the seconds until some employee asks, “Can I help you?”

This man said although he was required to spend several days in orientation, he couldn’t remember any specific instruction to help visitors find their way. My guess is if this was mentioned at all, it was as but one example of what is expected of all employees. What I am confident was stressed is that all Mayo employees are helpful to all visitors regardless of the employee’s specific duty. Giving directions — and welcoming patients pleasantly and cheerfully, ensuring patients get the help they need, and a host of other behaviors — are so ingrained they are done reflexively and unselfconsciously.

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The other day a visitor in a wheelchair was confused by the panel of buttons in a Gonda elevator. Another visitor explained in a way that saved the confused person any embarrassment. The helper may not have understood my pleased smile, because she explained: “I used to work here and just can’t get over helping people.” And she seemed genuinely excited to have another opportunity.

I inquired of an Austin health care professional, who was both trained at Mayo and once employed there. He said it was drilled into them from Day One that whenever they wore a Mayo nametag, they represented the Clinic and were to act in a thoroughly and consistently professional manner. He said this means even when off duty if they are known to be a Mayo employee or wearing a tee-shirt that would suggest as much. Far from resenting these demanding expectations, he was grateful for how it developed his individual character and made him proud to be part of this tradition.

When an Austin ophthalmologist referred me to an ophthalmology specialist at Mayo and I was accidentally appointed to an optometrist, the nurse took one look at the referral and became incensed at the error. She went down the hall and found an appropriate ophthalmologist just coming in and asked him if he could see me. “Certainly,” he said immediately.

On another occasion, and in a different regard, I was given incorrect information about a complicated business matter. An administrative clerk recognized the error and instead of sending me elsewhere, said, “This isn’t right, and I’m going to get it straightened out.” After several phone calls, I thanked her for the unusual ingenuity and effort this required. Her reply: “The Mayo brothers always said the needs of the patient come first, and I believe that.”

Every time I am escorted to an examining or test room the person pleasantly asks, “Where are you from?” I’m almost apologetic about coming from just down the road rather than from some exotic location that would make the person’s day more interesting. I’ve often thought of making something up, but I always feared the last patient just might actually be from there and would be asked if I know this one. It really isn’t necessary, because our chatting while walking down the hallway is always pleasant.

I am the more glad for those many patients who are distressed and frightened by serious issues, because this attitude and regard can have much to do with their healing.

It isn’t sufficient for top management to preach customer service — they must believe and model it. They must do this so convincingly employees down to the entry level buy into it. It must become part of the institutional culture. Then your business will be as successful as, well, Mayo Clinic.