Four Lessons for Hospitals from a Trip to Disney World

Recently, I returned from a trip to Disney with my family. It was my third time at the parks, but this trip was different. My wife and I were thrilled to have brought our three children, son in law, and, most importantly, our two grandchildren. Seeing my three and a half year old grandson, Erez, greet each experience with awe and excitement certainly left me smiling.

Of course, my dedication to my profession didn’t falter, and as an emergency physician and Chief Medical Officer for a physicians group I found myself taking lessons from Disney and applying them to our hectic life in the hospitals we serve.

Here is what I learned:

1. Each experience is new for our patients

According to my grandson, Erez, meeting Mickey was undoubtedly the most important and exciting part of our trip. After waking early, making our way to Magic Kingdom, and waiting in line, the final meeting was unforgettable. Erez was expectedly star struck, but what stuck with me was Mickey’s reaction. As soon as we approached, Mickey turned, engaged us in conversation, and told Erez how long he had been waiting to see him. Giving Erez a hug and sharing “memories” from the Mickey Mouse Club House, Mickey made Erez feel like the only kid in the world. As an adult, I knew better. I knew that the moment we left the room, Mickey would turn to the next child in line and engage him, as he did Erez. This cycle would continue throughout the day, and yet, it was Mickey’s job to maintain excitement, poise, and dedication with each child that came through the door, over and over again.

How many chest pain cases come into a hospital’s Emergency Department each day? Fifteen? Yet, despite this frequency, physicians must treat each patient with the same dedication with which they would treat the first case of the day. Patients, many of whom are experiencing their symptoms for the first time, are looking for empathy. The circumstances are irrelevant. Whoever the patient, whatever the symptom, physicians must learn to greet everyone with the same enthusiasm and dedication that Mickey had for Erez.

2. Setting expectations

At Disney, we spent a lot of time waiting. But, not surprisingly, Disney figured out a way to make these waits more manageable. First, before entering the park, we downloaded the wait time application. This allowed us to set expectations for the day – at the start. Once we developed our schedule and made our way to ride number one, we were greeted by the wait time sign. Again, here was an opportunity to reset expectations as we prepared for the wait. Interestingly enough, as we approached the end of each line, we were surprised at how quick the line seemed to move relative to what we’d expected. Disney had added time to their wait estimates… under promise and over deliver.

In a hospital setting, there are many opportunities to set expectations. Patients spend much of their time waiting: waiting to be triaged, waiting to see a doctor, waiting for test results. Certainly, there are many components of a patient’s experience which are out of control, however, many wait periods are entirely predictable. Physicians and hospital systems must do a good job of setting expectations. When a doctor leaves a patient’s room and orders a test, for example, they can consider how long the typical wait time is, build in time for delays, and share next steps with the patient.

3. Stay in character

Disney World is quite an operation. Trash cans are never emptied in front of people, spills are cleaned up the moment they occur, and never will you see a uniformed character acting out of place. There is a reason that each Disney employee is called a cast member. Everyone has an impact on the guest experience. We met Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Buzz Lightyear, and more. Everyone remained in character as long as they were in view. The “magic” Disney offers their customers is not an accident. From the moment they step into costume, every cast member is charged with assuming the role they are assigned.

In the hospital, physicians are on stage. Staff may have outside interests and enjoy socializing with their colleagues. They do deserve a break from the hectic moments of the job. However, regardless of all that, in the patient’s eyes, they are providers – offering the medical care they need to get healthy. As patients wait for test results, anxiously wondering what their diagnosis will be, staff focus must remain. In our personal life, and even in the break room, we might just be people, but at the nurse station or in the hall, we are providers being watched.

4. Safety first

A typical day at Disney is full of potential risks. However, with checks and balances, these potential accidents are avoided. I was reminded of this as my children and I waited to ride “Tower of Terror.” As our turn approached, a recording above announced the safety rules. Once we got closer, a Disney cast member repeated the same rules. After being secured in our seats, we were reminded to keep our hands inside as the cast member confirmed our belts were locked.  A final “thumbs up” signaled we were ready. As the ride began, I felt secure knowing that Disney was protecting my family and I.

Over the past several years, the provider community has begun to reconsider the cause of medical errors. What used to be “acceptable but unfortunate complications” has transformed into “never events.” By instituting checklists and time outs across hospital campuses,  providers are taking back the control. Studies have shown that the patient handoff consists of a series of risky moments. After a long stay – with care given by nurses, advance practitioners, providers and more, patients could be at risk when they are discharged or admitted. Even excellent clinicians, however, when stressed, may make mistakes. Concerns of documentation errors, duplicate testing, inaccurate reporting, and miscommunication should all be seriously addressed.

Disney “magic”

The “magic” Disney creates is not an accident. Deliberate thought and focus is the sole reason for the customer experience. In our line of work, our customers, the patients, deserve the same level of dedication.