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  October 14, 2002

Patient Relations Office Dedicated
To Ensuring High-Quality Service
By Pat Keefe

In the world of healthcare, patient relations offices carry something of a reputation. Many are seen as places that require their staff to have infinite amounts of tact and skill to deal with demanding, trying, or complaining individuals.

At the UConn Health Center, however, Patient Relations concentrates more on analysis and staff training than on fielding complaints.

Image: Carlene Bartolotta and Carol Dumont
Carlene Bartolotta, director of patient relations, right, speakers with Carol Dumont, a nursing supervisor. The Office of Patient Relations emphasizes analysis and staff training to ensure that patients receive the best care.

Photo by Peter Morenus

The Good of the Patient
"We are focused and centered on what is good for the patient," says Carlene Bartolotta, director of patient relations for the University's John Dempsey Hospital. "Positive patient relations arise from good care and service. We're here to work with employees to ensure the service is the best."

The staff perform three main tasks relating to high-quality service:

  • they conduct after-treatment surveys to gauge patients' sentiments and reactions and the Husky Rater, a real-time report designed to fix any problems recently admitted patients experience;

  • they design plans to address weaknesses or correct deficiencies uncovered by the surveys; and

  • they work directly with various hospital units to improve efficiency, and to promote staff training and quality assurance.

"We are fortunate to have a patient relations program at UConn," says Dr. Steven Strongwater, director of clinical operations and hospital director. "Most people don't realize what the patient relations office actually does. This is a group of very talented people who are available to address any patient concerns. They resolve problems. By virtue of their unique position, they quickly identify system issues that contribute to patient concerns. Their leadership role has helped us raise all of our patient satisfaction scores throughout the hospital."

Attention to Detail
Little things make a difference. A day-after phone call to patients discharged from same-day surgery or the Emergency Department elicited such favorable reactions that the program was expanded to all hospital units. Now, the day after discharge, a Health Center nurse calls to ask the patients how they feel and whether they need to talk to a physician. If they do, the nurse connects them with a doctor.

"It's good business but, more importantly, it's outreach and it's genuine," says Bartolotta. "The patients appreciate it and we've had fantastic feedback."

Another important detail has to do with personal belongings. Lost or misplaced eyeglasses, dentures, and hearing aids can make a person's stay in the hospital frustrating. Now when patients are admitted, they are given a brightly colored plastic box, like a pencil box, for their personal items. The bright color prevents the box getting lost in the shuffle of dietary pick-up, linen exchange, housekeeping, medication, or rounds. As the number of lost personal items has declined, patient satisfaction scores have increased.

Educated Consumers
Bartolotta's nursing experience is invaluable in Patient Relations. A nurse at the Health Center since it opened in 1975, she worked in pediatrics, oncology, and pediatric-oncology. She was the nurse manager on Pedi-5, the Children's Cancer Center ward, before it moved to Connecticut Children's Medical Center in 1995.

Her last nursing job was on the bone marrow transplant ward, where patient satisfaction was evident in the numbers seeking treatment in the unit.

"Patients are educated consumers today," she says. "They have almost infinite sources of information, and they use them. They want to be cared for professionally and knowledgeably, and they want to be kept informed. They're too smart to just endure."

The key to good patient relations is the staff, says Bartolotta, and the tone must be set by their managers.

"Staff have to know from managers that they are appreciated and that their good work is recognized," she says. "That work shows up upon discharge in how the patient feels. We must be alert to do anything we can as caregivers to make their stay a better one. That's the essence of patient relations."

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