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You’ve got a friend: Penn State Health earns highest marks in patient loyalty nationwide

By Carolyn Kimmel

Even though some of her patients are too young to talk, Dr. Melissa Tribuzio begins every visit by addressing them directly – “Hello, little one, are you making faces at Mommy?”

She may dance with the 7-year-olds, laugh at the 10-year-old’s butt joke or poke fun at the teenager’s eye rolls – all with one goal in mind.

“It helps parents recognize that I see their child as more than a list of symptoms. And it makes the kids feel important,” said Tribuzio, pediatrician at Penn State Health Lime Spring Outpatient Center. “Everyone deserves to be seen and heard by their doctor.”

Gestures like these helped Penn State Health earn the highest marks for patient satisfaction of any health system in the country, according to a national survey that measures patient satisfaction.

NRC, formerly known as the National Research Corporation, awarded Penn State Health its 2020 Excellence in Health System Loyalty Award based on patient surveys measuring several aspects of consumer loyalty, such as need, access and overall experience.

Behind the award are the health care providers who understand that bedside manner and rapport are a key part of offering the best patient care.

Small talk, big discussions

Sandi Brettler, Gamma Knife Program coordinator at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and clinical nurse specialist, makes sure to ask patients about small things – how was traffic on the way in? – and big things, such as how they are feeling about their latest test result.

Dr. John LaManna, a plastic surgeon at Penn State Health St. Joseph, uses humor and draws on shared history and experiences to foster rapport with his patients. “Especially in these trying times, I let them know we are all in the same boat together – and hopefully it’s not the Titanic!” he said with a grin.

“I think patients still frequently see doctors as unapproachable, but when my patients and their families see me as a ‘regular person,’ they seem to be more comfortable talking to me about their concerns, including what can be some pretty embarrassing topics,” Tribuzio said “As those kids get older, they are more likely to talk to me about risk behaviors and actually listen to my advice.”

She will often color with kids on exam table paper while she talks to their parents, telling stories from her own life or talking about friends and family who have struggled with issues similar to what the patient is facing.

“Frequently, I share my own parenting foibles,” she said. “Parenting is messy. No one comes out clean. We should admit that and not try to feign perfection.”

LaManna commiserates with patients about the state of the world, finding that if he can relate to them on an everyday life level, they will trust him with their larger-than-life health issues.

“They know that I’ve been here 30-plus years and know their – our – plight,” he said. “We need to laugh as much as possible! Times are tough, but this will eventually pass.”

Whole-person care

Brettler is convinced that rapport built in the first visit is crucial, especially for cancer patients who are often feeling uncertain and anxious.

“Our patients become our family before they leave here. We provide coffee, snacks, warm blankets and comfy chairs to family members who hold their hand,” she said. “We’re with them to cry when the news is not so good, and we rejoice when the news is better than anticipated.”

The staff works with patients to secure all the resources they need while healing – from transportation assistance to follow up care via telehealth. First-time patients get a Penn State Health T-shirt that says “Gamma Knife – Radiating Awesome,” which they often wear to subsequent visits.

As small community practices are absorbed into large medical systems, connection with patients becomes even more important, Tribuzio said. “If we can personalize the experience, even just a little, I truly believe patents will continue to trust us with their health,” she said.

The award reflects providers’ efforts over the past year to enhance communication and relationships with patients, said Jerry Griffin, director of consumer insights and digital engagement at Penn State Health. “We are very honored to receive this recognition,” he said.

The award was presented during NRC’s annual health symposium in August. See the complete list of 2020 Excellence Award winners here.

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