As Brittney Smith rested in her Christiana Care hospital room after surgery, volunteer Peggy Collins dropped by to see if there was anything she could do to make Smith’s stay better.
“It’s good so far,” said Smith. “The nurses are really nice and responsive.”
“That’s generally what I hear, but I never get tired of hearing it,” said Collins, a retired mortgage banker who is now a volunteer Patient Relations ambassador at Christiana Care. In her welcoming role, Collins loves meeting patients and enjoys the good feeling that comes from brightening their day.
The Patient Relations Ambassadors program began with a trial run in December and is now in full swing at Christiana Hospital and Wilmington Hospital. The 20 trained volunteers make it their goal to drop in with a friendly welcome within 48 hours of every patient’s hospital admission.
“Patients appreciate if you spend a couple of minutes asking how they are. Sometimes they will say,‘Please come back and see me if you have time.’”
Patient Relations ambassadors orient patients to the call bell and lights, show them how to use the GetWell Network patient education system, and provide general information about the hospital. While asking how things have been going, the volunteers will offer to grab an extra blanket or pillow.
They do not discuss medical issues, which are outside their expertise. “When in doubt, I go find a nurse,” Collins said.
In the case of Brittney Smith, Collins learned that if anything had been challenging for the 28-year-old Newark woman, it was that she had been admitted to Christiana Care through the Emergency Department because of sudden and intense pain.
“I’m sorry for any wait that you had,” said Collins.
“It’s OK,” said Smith, appreciating Collins’ empathy. “I’m feeling way better now.”
Smith, who works in communications for a local energy company, said she appreciates this kind of warm personal contact and the attempt to make her stay more comfortable.
Rose Wessells, manager of Volunteer Services, says that with the new program patients seem happier, and that satisfaction is reflected in higher marks for the hospitals in patient surveys.
“It’s exciting to see how much impact this is having on the patient experience,” Wessells said.
Sometimes there are practical patient concerns that need to be addressed. Patient Relations Ambassador Erin Dunston said one patient in a shared room asked for a private room because of a medical need.
“After she told me, I went to the Patient Relations Department and we got someone in to see her,” Dunston said.
Since 1996 there have been volunteers who visit patients over the age of 60. In early 2011, there was a six-week pilot for another program in which new volunteers, many of them nursing students, visited patients on four units. That program proved very successful, said Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, director, Visitor & Volunteer Services. One nursing student, in her second day as an ambassador, spent three hours with a patient who was waiting for his children to arrive. She stayed with the man because he was so scared.
“The nursing student was unbelievably proud that she was able serve in this way,” said Rodriguez-Duffy. “With this kind of response, we knew we were on to something.”
When Shawn R. Smith, MBA, joined Christiana Care last May as vice president of Patient Experience, he reviewed the volunteer programs with Rodriguez-Duffy and others. He believed that the positive results of the two patient visitation programs should be combined into one coordinated effort. He also stepped up the goal: to have every patient visited within 48 hours of when they are admitted to the hospital.
“This is another way of extending our patient- and family-centered approach,” Smith said. “We want everyone to feel welcomed and know that we’re committed to a high quality of care. To me, this is an additional layer of contact to enhance the patient’s experience.”
Bob Puitz of Pennsville, N.J., said he felt warmly welcomed during his recent hospital stay at Christiana Care for abdominal surgery.
“Seeing a friendly face check on you and ask how you’re doing is always a good thing,” he said.
The Patient Relations Ambassadors are gaining personal insights as they care for others. Dunston is a junior at the University of Delaware and has been thinking about a career as a pediatrician. Testing her career goal was one of the reasons she volunteered for the new program.
“I love this and want to work in a hospital now,” said Dunston, who is from College Park, Md.
In a similar vein, Tashay Clayton of Wilmington was recently certified as a medical assistant, and she decided to volunteer to better understand the hospital experience from the patient’s point of view.
“Patients appreciate if you spend a couple of minutes asking how they are,” said Clayton. “Sometimes they will say, ‘Please come back and see me if you have time.’”
This is especially true for seniors and patients who don’t have family in the area, said Arun Amin, a retired research scientist who was one of the earliest volunteers for the new program. He chuckled as he recalled one patient who, when he asked if he could get him anything, replied, “Sure! A scotch!”
His response: “Let’s get you home and feeling great, then you can make that happen.”