'Survival skills' honed in continuing ed initiative

Outgrowth of customer service course

When Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center conducted a successful customer service course — encompassing not only its own staff but community members and health care workers from outlying facilities — the effort led to yet another initiative, aimed at enhancing employee morale and teamwork, says Julie Johnson, CHAM, director of health information management, communications, for the Safford, AZ, facility.

The customer service course, "Together to the Top," is a four-and-a-half-hour program that covers 12 service standards (see box below), with the over-arching themes of compassion, integrity, and excellence, Johnson notes. "It's about how to treat our patients, visitors, families." The course attracted outside attention, she adds, when Mt. Graham board members and employees who had taken it began talking about it out in the community.

When the 59-bed hospital received calls from Safford city officials, who were looking for a customer service program for their employees, and management of the Morenci (AZ) Health Care Clinic, which is located 50 miles away, Mt. Graham's response was to provide the course to all who were interested — free of charge, Johnson says.

The offer is typical of Mt. Graham's community-mindedness, she explains, which may have something to do with its increasingly rare status as an independent, locally owned hospital that — despite its relatively small size — apparently has a large presence in its 100-mile service radius.

The customer service course began in 2001, and 65 classes had been completed by the end of 2005, Johnson says. "They are now held every other month for all new employees and those who would like to attend the course again."

The hospital is preparing to open a state-of-the-art cancer center — an event recently celebrated with a visit from bicyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, Johnson says. The cancer center is being built with large picture windows facing nearby Mt. Graham, she adds, which is the inspiration for the customer service theme, "Together to the Top."

All of the hospital's initiatives, Johnson explains, are designed to fall under Mt. Graham's guiding principle — "Toccare Lo Spirito," a Latin phrase that means "To Touch the Spirit."

After the completion of a recent customer service course, the hospital did a survey of its employees "to see what still needs to be fixed," Johnson says. "[Survey results] showed that what needed to be worked on was interdepartmental relations; we weren't treating each other very well."

That realization led to another project spearheaded by Johnson — who also conducted the customer service course and aimed at enhancing leadership and team-building skills, she notes. The chief operating officer (COO), the admissions supervisor, the quality/foundation secretary, a coder, and the hospital's concierge also were involved in presenting the resulting two-hour program, Johnson says.

It was decided that the new program would be based on "Survivor," she explains, when project organizers kept coming back to the theme of "surviving the everyday interactions that occur."

"We then decided that this would be a series of classes to be held every two years as a 'refresher' course," Johnson adds, with the topic being whatever issues come up as needing to be addressed. "These continuing courses will be based on feedback from the employee surveys that will be implemented every other year."

Over a six-month period in 2005, 45 "Survivor" classes were held, and a similar schedule is anticipated for 2007, she notes.

The program had a kind of "Pirates of the Caribbean" motif, with treasure hunts, drums beating, and decorations that included gold coins, tiger cloth, leopard skin, and huge butterflies, Johnson says. "Our theme was to become committed to each other."

The entire staff, she adds, from housekeeping employees to board members, took part in the program.

As the first step to discovering how to relate to others more effectively, Johnson explains, participants learned about themselves. An underlying idea, she says, was that no matter what position a person holds in the organization, every one is called upon — at one time or another — to be a leader.

"We focused on leadership being a function of knowing yourself, or having a vision you can communicate," Johnson says. Using the acronym of SELF, she adds, participants looked at themselves in terms of whether they were socializers, executives, lovers or fact-finders.

"We did something you don't normally do — we put people in categories," Johnson says. "Actually, we let them do it themselves, by saying, 'If you're an introvert, come here, and if you're an extrovert, go there.' We had everyone in four corners."

Each person talked about himself or herself, saying, for instance, "'I am a socializer' or 'I am a risk-taker,'" she adds. "They also talked about limitations. The risk-taker might also be overbearing, restless, dominating, for example. Each group talked about what their characteristics were."

In some sessions there were no fact-finders or executives, but — as might be expected in a health care setting — there were always lots of lovers, Johnson points out. "Everyone put themselves in the category they would be in anyway. Fact-finders tended to be maintenance or security or financial [personnel]."

As part of the exercise, people in each group listed their likes and dislikes, she says. "Executives might like control and responsibility, while lovers like teamwork, caring, kindness. Fact-finders like perfection and consistency."

"One of the fact-finders said he absolutely did not like a meeting when a memo would suffice," Johnson adds. One lesson learned was not to take up time with chit chat or pleasantries during a phone call to maintenance employees, but to get right to the point, she says. "That's what they want."

The COO told other participants the story of how, when he was first getting to know Johnson, he would walk into her office and immediately launch into the item of business he needed to talk with her about, she recounts. "I would say, 'My weekend was really great, thank you very much.'"

His realization was that the same sort of thing was going on interdepartmentally, Johnson says. "Everyone learned how to connect with the other people according to how they categorized themselves, and how to be realistic and flexible about expectations. They learned how to communicate up, down, and across."

(Editor's note: Julie Johnson can be reached at juliej@mtgraham.org.)