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Bob Crookston, one of the newly trained ambassadors talks to a patient at Sunnybrook.

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FOR THE PAST DECADE, Sunnybrook's Trish Lospinuso had been asking staff and patients to put her out of business. The former patient relations advisor finally got her wish this past November (in a sense), when the new Office of the Patient Experience was created.

Patient Relations, says Trish, who is now one of the hospital's three patient experience advisors, was basically a complaints department: when a conflict or difficulty arose, patients would be directed there, and she and her co-workers would smooth things over. But the new office comes with an entirely new philosophy toward improving patient satisfaction, in which staff and patients work together to resolve minor concerns before they escalate into major disagreements.

The new centre is based on principles of customer service. “It’s a real culture shift.” Trish Lospinuso, patient experience advisor.

The idea came from a recent visit to the Cleveland Clinic, where a similar office vastly improved the treatment centre's overall patient satisfaction, as measured by surveys. A Sunnybrook team decided the idea would translate here, where patient surveys find clinical care exceptional but the "softer side" of care was sometimes found lacking.

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Sunnybrook staff will take ownership of patient experience, using tools acquired in courses designed to improve patient interaction in situations such as dealing with grief, managing angry people and telephone communications. It's a more proactive approach. "We don't have to wait for the patient to tell us they are unhappy," says Trish. As well, compliments for positive actions will be highlighted to patients and staff through recognition programs.

Nicky Holmes, patient care manager of the hospital's D4 ICU, says patients and visitors on her unit are under duress. "It's a very stressful time for patients and their families. They are going through a lot, they are processing a lot of information." Often, she says, patients are unwilling to "bother" the nursing staff, knowing they are extremely busy. She sees the new office as "a win-win for everybody."

A major aspect of the new office is training an army of volunteer ambassadors, who will fan out into the various wards to talk to incoming patients and loved ones about everything from parking to where to get a good meal to the unit's structure. (During the pilot phase, they're in the D4 ICU, the C5 Trauma Unit and the D5 Orthopaedic and Neurosurgical unit). While the volunteers are not expected to resolve conflicts, they can inform the Patient Experience office if someone is unhappy, hopefully preventing a larger issue from ever arising.

Bob Crookston, one of the newly trained ambassadors, has also been a Sunnybrook patient. "A new patient coming in is under enough stress as it is, just getting a TV and finding out about parking. If we can have somebody alleviate that concern a little bit, it's a good thing." He says one of the most important things to a patient is simply "knowing someone cares about them."

Celine Peterson is a former patient who has already been helped by the Patient Experience office. The 20-year-old was in a serious car accident in 2009 that shattered her pelvis. She was rushed to Sunnybrook, where she spent a week in traction, followed by surgery and then another week in recovery. She was upset to learn, upon looking at her own medical reports, that some of the nurses had characterized her as a difficult, unco-operative patient. She thought those accounts were unwarranted – she was in a great deal of pain at the time – and they made her feel angry and powerless.

When she called Trish to discuss her reports she received a quick response, resulting in a meeting for Celine and her mother to discuss her Sunnybrook stay and treatment. She was very satisfied with the outcome, which she hopes will help future patients. "We sorted things out and talked things out. It was really nice to know they are really working to change."

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