EPHC focuses on customer service

Julie Hatzell, left, and Dana Nowling of Plumas Rural Services offer a unique perspective on customer service by pairing it with an understanding of trauma and a focus on empathy. They created this blended training approach themselves, and they’re offering it to all interested organizations. For more information, contact Dana Nowling, [email protected]. Photo submitted

Eastern Plumas Health Care has been working diligently to bolster its customer service skills — from the way an operator answers an incoming patient phone call, to the manner in which staff approaches a patient complaint or a frustrated or angry patient.

EPHC CEO Tom Hayes said at a recent board meeting that he would be working with the hospital’s human resources team and with outside trainers to improve customer service at EPHC. “The patient comes first,” he said. “I truly believe that. And, we have to work harder to make that a reality.”

In an effort to develop a more positive customer service experience for EPHC’s clinic and hospital patients, employees have been attending a customer service training workshop with a twist. It is a “Trauma-Informed Approach,” with trauma defined by the workshop presenters as “any experience (real or perceived) that leaves a person feeling hopeless, helpless, or fearing for their life/survival or their safety.”

The workshop starts from a position of empathy — that is, an attempt to understand what trauma the individual patient might be going through — in an effort to treat them on their own terms, with care and kindness.

This approach works for front line receptionists, phone operators, nurses and virtually everyone who comes into contact with patients.

Dana Nowling and Julie Hatzell of Plumas Rural Services created the workshop. It is one of a kind, said Nowling, in that it combines more traditional customer service training with an empathetic approach to the trauma that a hospital or clinic patient might be experiencing.

Nowling and Hatzell showed a film on empathy, which made a big impression on EPHC staff members. “What they’re used to in their daily work, patients are not,” added Nowling. “We try to put [front line staff] in the patient’s shoes — from entering the parking lot, walking in the front door, what kind of anxiety the patient might be experiencing.”

Simply coming to a doctor’s appointment or to the hospital for a procedure can be very anxiety producing, she noted.

Each individual also brings with them their own unique set of experiences. Hatzell’s empathetic approach helped workshop participants consider what trauma induced emotions their patients might be experiencing — in order to better care for them both physically and emotionally.

Nowling explained there is also trauma that comes from caring for patients day in and day out. A front office staff member or a direct health care provider who is undergoing trauma, whether job induced or not, is less likely to offer a patient the care he or she needs. The trainers weave “the empathy piece in throughout the day,” said Nowling, even when they’re training staff in some practical skills for verbal de-escalation of “agitated or threatening behaviors.”

Empathy is an essential ingredient in “self care,” which was also an important part of this training. “Compassion fatigue” is an inherent danger in healthcare occupations, said Nowling. The workshop covered both compassion fatigue and burnout. Compassion fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that causes an individual to become numb to his or her patients’ feelings and causes a resulting inability to feel compassion for them. “It is different than burnout,” explained Nowling, “because it’s more trauma based.”

Hatzell shared a quote by Rachel Naomi Remen: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

She showed staff how to recognize distress indicators and do something about them before they erupted into full blown compassion fatigue. She discussed the support care giving staff might need from each other and how to create a self care plan.

Perhaps the biggest take-away from this training is that taking an extra moment to imagine what someone is going through before reacting — whether that’s a patient or a co-worker — can make a big difference to that person’s well being.

Click here to submit a letter to the editor about this post.