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On the Road - Centra Health
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Building a System-wide Commitment to Patient Experience Excellence

On the Road with Centra Health

Stacy Palmer

September 2016

This summer I had the opportunity to spend two days nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains engaging with Centra Health as they kicked-off a system-wide patient experience focus. Located in Lynchburg, Virginia, Centra is a regional non-profit healthcare system providing care in 64 locations throughout Central and Southern Virginia.

My gracious hosts for the visit were Allison Camm, Director Patient Experience and Carolyn Jacques, Vice President, Women & Children’s Services. Both Camm and Jacques are active members of The Beryl Institute and have enjoyed networking and learning with the patient experience community. In fact, they invited me to Centra to speak with their organization about the current state of patient experience, guiding principles for patient experience excellence and the resources available to their entire staff through their organizational membership with The Beryl Institute.

I had the pleasure of kicking off the first meeting of their Centra Experience Network team, a group representing multiple Centra sites and departments that meets monthly to discuss trends, best practices and patient feedback. Their goal is to share information to help the organization better focus and be aligned on experience goals and opportunities. Given this was the first formal meeting of the group, I was especially inspired to see how transparent team members were regarding challenges faced by the organization. It was clear this team shares a vision to create an excellent Centra Experience and understands the importance of honest reflection and analysis as part of that process.

Update: In following up since my visit, I learned the team continues to be enthusiastic about their efforts and is making great strides. In a recent meeting they discussed A3 systematic problem solving, a Lean thinking methodology tool that helps map processes and identify opportunities. Each member is encouraged to share the tool within their department and look for ways it can help them analyze and implement experience improvement efforts.

Another highlight of my visit was participating at Centra’s quarterly Centra Leadership Team (CLT) meeting that includes all managers, directors and vice presidents within the organization, even the satellite campuses which participate via two-way video conferencing. It's a chance for the executive team to meet with this group collectively and ensure everyone is on the same page regarding company priorities, goals and initiatives. I loved hearing the “shout outs” that kicked off the meeting where team members recognized new participants and publicly acknowledged co-workers for great work and assistance. The meeting also included a memorable presentation on the importance of hand hygiene, including a hands-on exercise to practice effective hand-washing techniques using hand sanitizer (in fact, they did such a great job that I personally haven’t washed my hands the same since).

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the meeting was the presentation of the Centra Experience Legend awards. Presented twice every year, these staff-nominated recognitions are awarded to individuals modeling the organization’s standards and behaviors including such things as working as a team and leading by example. Making the award presentation extra special is the presence of the recipients’ families to attend the ceremony and even have a photo shoot with their loved ones. This addition creates an even greater sense of pride in staff for their accomplishments and contributions to their work.

I also had the opportunity to share with CLT why, at The Beryl Institute, we believe investing in patient experience is a foundational strategy for Centra and all organizations. Following the presentation, Jacques invited all participants to make their personal commitment to the ‘Centra Experience’ by signing their names on large banners at the meeting that would later be hung on all campuses. She further challenged attendees to do the same in their units and departments to help cascade the commitment throughout the organization.

These personal commitments are significant for Centra as they embark on their development of an organizational Centra Experience strategic plan. The executive team is leading the creation of the plan, a tremendous statement of leadership support and the alignment and purpose of this work. “Our goal is to create a culture of service  where patients and families feel safe and know that they will receive  quality care and service with every encounter.” said Camm.

Key components of the initial plan include the development of patient and family advisory councils and focus groups, along with proactive and purposeful daily leader rounding. “Feedback has helped reinforce, in many cases that, yes, we do need to be constantly evolving and embracing change. Our patients are giving us the gift of feedback, we need to use it.,” shared Camm. The strategic plan also incorporates more Lean process improvement efforts, leadership development, staff onboarding and an overall focus on staff and physician engagement.

Engagement in Action

During my visit I witnessed many inspiring moments and interactions with staff. There was no doubt walking through the halls of the hospital that this organization exudes Southern hospitality and friendliness. The first example of that for many is with the Centra valet team, operated by Metropolitan Healthcare Services. I was impressed by their friendliness and eagerness to help as I arrived, and I was moved as I heard other staff members rave about their contributions to the Centra experience.

One great example is last winter when Virginia had a severe snow storm. Rather than waiting in the warmth of the hospital lobby for patients to arrive and have their cars parked, the valet team was outside scraping windows of cars during their downtime. “We realize patients and their families are under a lot of stress when they’re here,” acknowledged Jonathan Ramsey, Supervisor, Metropolitan Health Care Services. “The last thing they need when they are discharged is the added stress of 30 minutes scraping their windows in the cold before they drive home.”

Adding to the welcoming experience is Centra Ambassador, Erica Smith, who stands at the main entrance from 5 AM to 9 AM most mornings with a contagious smile and energy. Smith wishes everyone a ‘blessed day’ with an undeniable warmth and sincerity. “People often say meeting Erica is the highlight of their day,” said Camm. “You leave feeling like she's left a little piece of herself with you.” Camm also admits she often walks past her regular staff entrance to the front of the hospital just to have ‘an Erica experience’ to start off her day.

Another example of staff commitment to creating memorable experiences lives in Centra’s ‘Fresh as a Daisy’ program. Several years ago, housekeeping realized there were many times when patients left their rooms for tests or procedures that were great opportunities for staff to service the rooms. However, they wanted to ensure the patients were not worried by things being different when they returned. Housekeeping began leaving a card saying “We were here while you were out. Your room is now fresh as a daisy.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Environmental Services Technician, Mila Swain, who has truly embraced the daisy program. She takes great pride in brightening her patients’ days and always ensures they have a fresh flower in their room. Her patients love the gesture as well and are often seen holding their flowers close as they are transported to other areas of the hospital. “Anything I can do to make their day, makes mine,” said Swain.

A similar sentiment was conveyed by Chris Ogden, Manager Operations Nutrition Services, as she shared details of Centra’s Room Service Program. With over 20 years in various positions in Centra's Culinary Group, Ogden has a great appreciation and understanding of the complexities of meeting both patient preferences and dietary needs. Her team operates an impressive kitchen to fulfil patient orders at Lynchburg General as well as providing call center support for nutrition services for all Centra campuses from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM seven days a week. In addition, they operate the hospital cafeterias that serve staff and patients and family members each day.

Another impressive stop on the Centra tour was the Centra Call Center. Tabatha Sprouse, Director of the Center, shared how six separate service departments came together in one Call Center to provide efficient and excellent service to our customers. The departments included the hospital PBX switchboard operators, the Flow coordinator, the nursing administrative supervisors, the staff scheduling coordinators, dispatch and transport services. Integrating the groups into one team has developed a culture of teamwork and collaboration for those who previously worked independently.  

Designed for Experience

Walking through the halls of Centra, it was clear much consideration was given to overall patient/family experience in the design process. Even the transitions from old to new space are relatively seamless for patients. The fact that newly built space outside of the surgery waiting area includes a small coffee bar is a great testament to the consideration given to patient/family needs. 

In the Emergency Department, designer Wenbren Coleman helped incorporate a child-friendly theme of Virginia Wildlife that easily translates to adult care rooms as necessary. With graphics representing such things as owls, butterflies or chipmunks, the rooms calm and distract patients while also providing to points of reference for both patients and staff. “These themes serve several purposes,” shared Camm. “Most of all, they reduce anxiety and help us teach the importance of aesthetics and visual imagery as calming tools when patients return home.”

Centra’s pediatric center also provides a visual distraction and relaxation experience with an extra focus on security. Once inside the locked unit, children and families enter an area designed to provoke fun. With color-changing lights on the walls and ceilings, hidden themes to search on the floor tiles and a palate of colors intended to grab the attention of children, the area is built to engage children and provide a distraction from the reality of illness and discomfort. 

My visit ended with a tour of Dawson Inn, Centra’s twenty room not-for-profit hospitality house named after retired Centra President & CEO George Dawson and his wife Rosemary, both of whom made many valuable contributions to healthcare in Central Virginia. I asked Camm and Jacques what they believe makes Dawson Inn unique, and without hesitation they agreed it’s the staff. “Every single person working here has the mentality that they're opening up their home,” said Camm. “Whatever situation the family is in, the staff understand they are scared and overwhelmed and want to be close to their loved ones.” 

The staff at Dawson Inn work hard to anticipate families’ needs and are often seen tearing up as they say goodbye since they quickly become like second families to their guests. “We order food, watch TV together and spend time talking and listening,” said Kim Floyd, Manager, Dawson Inn. 

When I visited, Floyd and her team were excited about an upcoming fun run intended to help offset the expenses for families. Their goal is to ensure all families have the ability to stay close to their loved ones even if financial situation makes the accommodations difficult. And the Centra staff and community have rallied behind their mission with tremendous support and enthusiasm.

A Bright Future

I’m truly inspired by the vision of Centra to embrace an experience-centric culture. With so many positive strides already underway and a strategic vision focused on incorporating patient and family feedback and continuing to build a culture of empowerment and service, they are well on their way to building a system-wide commitment to patient experience excellence.

“Our ultimate goal is that any patient coming through our system will receive excellent care for life,” said Camm. “We want our culture to reflect and exude that from the time a patient enters our system until they leave better educated, more complainant and better positioned for positive clinical outcomes.”

Special thanks to the team at Centra for sharing their patient experience journey. For more information on the Centra Experience, contact Allison Camm at

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