If you are accident-prone as I sometimes am, you want to live in a place where your community responds well.
I had the chance to test this premise thanks to two serious injuries, one from a crushed knee 12 years ago, the other from a femur/hip fracture last month as the result of tripping while running, then sailing through the air and falling.
UNC Hospitals, or UNC Health Care as the institution is now known, has improved significantly in my experience.
I wondered why this was. What could account for such a turnaround in my hospital experience from one so fraught with difficulties I perceived years ago to now one where I felt so well cared for?
Had the health-care industry actually improved after so many mergers, HMO cutbacks in patient service, numerous sales of hospitals and doctors’ offices, and all the news stories about patients facing devastating choices? Was Obamacare, with its new quality standards, responsible? Market competition from Duke?
I wanted to know why hospital employees at UNC, from nurses to doctors, seemed so happy today where elsewhere so many workers would quit if only they had the chance.
In search of answers, I spoke with Karen McCall, the chief communications and marketing officer at UNC Health Care and UNC School of Medicine.
What she told me revealed not only how UNC Health Care has improved but also the reasons why and how our society as a whole functions, for better or worse.
According to McCall, the health-care industry began around ten years ago to take patient satisfaction more seriously. UNC began to make some changes, although as an institution, she admitted, it didn’t improve as quickly as some others. Two new leaders were appointed in 2004: Dr. Bill Roper, currently CEO of UNC Health Care, dean of the UNC School of Medicine and vice chancellor for Medical Affairs; and Gary Park, president of UNC Hospitals.
After a few more years, UNC Health Care pushed forward with a concentrated, data-driven effort to improve things, McCall said. It tested things, found out what areas in the hospital were doing well and which weren’t. These findings were then codified into what McCall described as “Carolina Care,” measurable targets that had to be met.
All this sounds well and good, but it could have only led to more bureaucratic layers or window-dressing. Instead, UNC chose to include its staff in the decision-making process. This made all the difference in my opinion.
“Our nurses led (the effort), because so much of our patient experience depends on nurses,” McCall told me.
About the entire hospital staff, she added, “If they’re happy, it’s incredibly easier to make the patients happy.”
As a result, she said, staff received the tools they needed to do their job. UNC found ways to tell people they were appreciated. Patients, moreover, were listened to carefully. All the surveys you get after your hospital stay or doctor experience seem to count.
This year, UNC Health Care was ranked No. 1 in patient centeredness out of 168 U.S. academic centers by the University Healthcare Consortium, or UHC, McCall told me.
I found little things made a huge difference during my six-day hospital stay. The food had improved, although Southern comfort food was still the best choice (the macaroni-and-cheese is to die for).
A simple patient idea, however, was the thing I most looked forward to. Every morning an immensely cheerful staff member asked if I wanted a warm, refreshing washcloth. It was like being in a good Japanese restaurant or on a nice flight to Europe, seated in first class. I felt immensely better.
Not all is perfect. The emergency room on the Friday afternoon I checked in seemed understaffed. I had to wait more than 12 hours to be moved up into the hospital. I waited behind my curtain and heard a nurse grabbed by a belligerent patient.
When I asked McCall about this, she told me the hospital tries to anticipate staffing needs for the emergency room, especially on weekends. The hospital is usually full so the emergency room gets backed up. The problem, according to her, is our state’s mental-health crisis.
“The emergency room is where we serve the community at all levels,” McCall said. “Everybody has been closing their psychiatric beds across the state. It’s an awful situation.”
So if you’re waiting in the ER for what feels like forever, train your sights on Raleigh not Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, order the macaroni-and-cheese, or at least ask for some saltines, while you wait.
Linda Haac lives in Carrboro.