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What I Learned about Patient Experience from Working at Disneyland

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Walt Disney statue at DisneylandAfter 9 years of working at Disneyland, I can honestly say it’s a magical place. The experience you get as a Disneyland Park Guest is truly unique, and it stays with you for life. It's the reason I bought an annual pass on my last day of work—they earned my loyalty from the first day I set foot in the park.

Of course, few people would call a hospital or practice "the Happiest Place on Earth." But that doesn't mean you can't learn about the patient experience from the unique experience Disneyland provides to all who come to this happy place.

See also: What Patients Say Is Most Important to a Positive Patient Experience

All Patients Come in with Expectations

Each and every person who enters the Disneyland gates comes in with a set of expectations. No matter where you live, you've seen Disneyland’s branding: images of smiling children and adults all having the time of their life. People truly believe their visit will be the best day ever. And as a cast member, it was my job to make that happen.

Today, patients have more options than ever before, which means they have certain expectations when they walk into any hospital or practice. They expect the front desk to be organized and staff members to be friendly, for doctors to know their name, and to feel like someone is really listening. If you cannot meet the most basic expectations, there's no reason for a patient to stick around.

People Just Want to Be Heard

Everyone wants a day at Disneyland to be the best day of their life. Unfortunately, not everyone has that experience. It might be too hot or rainy, they may have forgotten something, or a child might have a meltdown. There are so many things we cannot control. In the end, I always tried to offer something to make up for the trouble, like a FastPass to a favorite attraction. But I’ve learned that, more often than not, people just need you to listen.

The same is true of healthcare. Patients want the best possible outcome, but it's tough when they feel they are not getting the treatment they might have expected. When things don't seem to be going right, patients need someone to say, “I understand. I see this is frustrating you, so let's see what steps we can take together to make things better."

A Patient Is Not Just Another Number

Every day, 50,000 people may walk through the gates at Disneyland, but a cast member’s goal is to make sure that each and every person feels special. As a cast member, I took the time to say "happy birthday" to celebrating Guests or ask questions about someone's favorite ride. The little things matter, and it means so much to a little girl in costume for a cast member to look over and say, "Good morning, Princess, are you having a good time?"

We hear this all the time in healthcare: “I don’t want to feel like just another number.” Patients expect staff members to be kind. They want to feel a connection with staff, doctors, or nurses. Personalized service is a huge part of the patient experience, and that means paying attention to the little things. Taking that next step to remember names and details, to follow up with a phone call the next day, to make sure someone knows all their options for treatment—that’s what matters most.

Working Together Is Key to Patient Experience

Disneyland would not be what it is today if all cast members were not on the same page. I may have worked primarily in food services, but I was still able to answer questions about various attractions throughout the park. If a Guest dropped their popcorn, a custodial cast member would come up to me and ask for a replacement. Everyone works together to see that a Guest has that magical experience they’ve come to expect.

The same should be true of your staff. Everyone should strive to provide the same level of care because one person’s attitude can bring down the entire patient experience. In many specialties, it’s also important to work closely with a patient’s other doctors to see that they get the right course of treatment. An oral surgeon may need to work closely with a dentist, or an ENT physician may consult the patient’s primary care provider. Taking the time to communicate with the right people shows that you always have the patient’s best interest in mind.

A Good Patient Experience Can Stay with You for Life

For most people, a trip to Disneyland includes the cost of travel and hotels on top of park fees. If someone had a terrible time, they'd be unlikely to spend all that money to return. Like a trip to Disneyland, shopping around for a new doctor is a big deal. If a patient spends money on an office visit only to receive low-quality care, there's no reason to go back.

I've had amazing experiences at Disneyland my entire life. Even after 9 years of working there, I will continue to bring my daughter and encourage my friends and family to join on regular visits to the park. Adults who had great experiences as a kid are still loyal to this day, and in the same way, a patient can be loyal to your brand. Someone might say, “I've used this pediatrician for all of my kids," or, "My sister loved her oncologist—you should try her!" Providing that customized level of care for one person can quickly turn into a whole circle of loyal patients.

You don't have to strive for "The Happiest Place on Earth" to provide positive patient experiences. But Disneyland taught me that hospitals and practices always have the opportunity to give someone “the best experience I’ve had at a doctor’s office!”

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