Tales of the TELL: Those Little Red Flags are Patient Experience Symptoms

Kathy Roy Gaughran

Serious poker players know about a “tell.” You’ve probably heard the term…some physical signal is a giveaway about the cards a player’s been dealt. A tell is usually subtle—maybe barely perceptible—but a strategic signal and possible advantage in playing the game.

Medical offices and hospitals are constantly giving off little signals that, when detected, can be a reflection of the office, the staff, and ultimately, the likely patient experience to follow.

If you’re not into card games, there’s the near-mythical story attributed to the highly acclaimed rock band Van Halen. Their standard performance contract called for a bowl of M&Ms, but—upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation—there were to be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area.

The reason for the seemingly whimsical ban on brown M&Ms was quite serious. It was a practical test to determine if the technical requirements and critical safety details in the contract had been fulfilled with care. Lead singer David Lee Roth, according to Snopes, would later write: “If I saw a brown M&M…well, line-check the entire production. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to destroy the show.”

The business concept applies to hospitals and provider offices. The important thing is for doctors, administrators and staff leaders to be aware of things as small as a brown M&M. Your list of neglected details may be different, but some of the telling examples could include:

  • When a patient arrival seems to be a staff interruption;
  • When the reception area is a neglected zone (with two aging magazines);
  • When uniforms or business attire is crumpled;
  • When everyone bets that someone else will answer the constantly ringing telephone;
  • When the tone of patient interaction is, “It’s just another bad day;”
  • When there are paper towels on the restroom floor; or
  • When an exam room has not been freshly restocked.

The “tell” is a symptom, not the “disease.” It suggests that further tests are appropriate. The root concern may be, if there is no pride in the workplace for the little things, larger and more significant issues may be a problem. They raise reasonable questions about the health of the office culture, leadership, training and morale.

Watch for the tell or other red flag symptom. A positive patient experience will flourish in an office culture of caring concern and professional pride…right down to the figurative bowl of M&Ms.


Kathy Roy Gaughran

About Kathy Roy Gaughran

Senior Marketing Strategist Kathy Roy Gaughran [Kathy@healthcaresuccess.com] has helped thousands of clients throughout North America achieve their growth goals. An award-winning strategic marketing planner, Kathy is an accomplished writer and speaker, frequently presenting to national, local and state professional associations.

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One Response to Tales of the TELL: Those Little Red Flags are Patient Experience Symptoms

  1. Brandon December 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    Excellent post Kathy.

    Have you read the E-Myth by Gerber? There’s a section in that book where the author discusses a hotel which he frequents. Every time he went to this particular hotel, he would enjoy an exceptional experience. Every time!

    No matter who was working, how many other visitors there were, or what time of year it was, he always received the same experience. How many hospitals or medical offices can say the same?

    After talking with the manager, Gerber identifies a documented customer experience system as the reason for the consistent experience. The idea can be tied directly into how medical professionals think about their offices.

    Unless there’s a standard operating procedure — which gives staff a step-by-step on digging out the “brown M&M’s” — there’s always the risk of a negative experience. Writing down a customer experience system can help avoid that.

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