VA Augusta continues customer, Veteran service evolution - Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
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Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center

 

VA Augusta continues customer, Veteran service evolution

April 14, 2017

 Marilynn Jones, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center patient advocate, talks with a veteran about a concern. Three patient advocates at Charlie Nrowood deal with about 400 issues every month. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Karen McBride)
Marilynn Jones, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center patient advocate, talks with a Veteran about a concern. Three patient advocates at Charlie Norwood deal with about 400 issues every month. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Karen McBride)

By Mark Karmin
Volunteer, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
 

AUGUSTA, Georgia -- Historically, customer service in government services has been imperfect; a wobbling balancing act between serving the nation and serving people who use federal services. A customer service pattern adopted at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in 2016 is overcoming the rocky road of the past, and aims to work towards a more positive future for the facility.

In 2014, approximately 200,000 Georgia Veterans – 45,000 in the Central Savannah River Area -- received some medical care from the VA. In that same year, a VA conducted a survey of Veterans who received inpatient care. The results? Fourteen percent complained in the previous 12 months. Seizing on room for improvement, the VA has taken great steps to correct and realign.

Leadership has taken a proactive approach to solving Veterans’ concerns at Charlie Norwood. The VA Augusta administration identified customer service strongly organized as a distant central bureaucracy, like a power grid broadcasting electricity across a vast geographical area; effective from a short distance, but rapidly losing strength the farther away an object is from the point of generation.

The Customer Service bureaucracy would process complaints from a single nerve center, but with no significant presence in the service lines where patients received their care. The VA is a huge organization, and sometimes that size lends itself to unique problems. Ironically, customer service isolated Veterans from the very people who were supposed to help solve their concerns.

Previously, if Veterans wanted to file complaints about their care, they needed to lodge their issue with customer service. They would then move the issue to one of Charlie Norwood’s three patient advocates tasked to meet with patients, discuss their specific concerns, and help reach an amicable resolution to Veterans’ problems.

Natalie Daniels, chief of the Customer Service Division, said that arrangement lacked the personal approach customer care should represent.

“We’re trying to move away from that rigid centralized approach to a more decentralized one. Improving patient experience is about listening to them more; a holistic patient experience has to start at the lowest level of service, and go to the very top in order to serve patients better.” Daniels said.

A new beginning

To that end, the medical center director initiated a customer service program February 2016 to add “service level champions” to certain high-volume service lines. Champions fill the gap between the patient and customer service. If customer service is generating the electricity for the power grid, champions are the substations which ensure that power is relayed as far as possible. Now, when a patient in a department lodges a complaint, the champion steps in to address it locally.

Charlie Norwood’s Chief of Pharmacy Dr. Jennifer Blanchard said that since the pharmacy has so many patients, they have received many complaints. She credits the shift in customer service policy, and the recent arrival of a champion for seeing fewer complaints lately.

“Face time with Vets is valuable, and you can’t replicate that personal touch from a central office. I think it’s very helpful to have issues handled at the lowest level, by people specially trained and interested in helping the Veterans with the process,” Blanchard said.

VA Augusta has also made customer service important to all employees. Employee evaluations reward those who go above and beyond to deliver compassionate care to their patients.

 The Customer Service Division staff at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center poses for a photo in March 2017. From left to right: Marilynn Jones, patient advocate; Natalie Daniels, chief of customer service; Vicki Hornsby, customer service staff assistant; Shontina Floyd, customer service lead; Shereen Hughes, patient advocate; and Daphne Freeman, patient advocate. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Christopher Harper)
 The Customer Service Division staff at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center poses for a photo in March 2017. From left to right: Marilynn Jones, patient advocate; Natalie Daniels, chief of customer service; Vicki Hornsby, customer service staff assistant; Shontina Floyd, customer service lead; Shereen Hughes, patient advocate; and Daphne Freeman, patient advocate. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Christopher Harper)

Champions in specialty care

The Specialty Care Service is one of the departments where this champion program has already been rolled out. Dr. Joseph Morris, chief of specialty care has a long history of customer service experience. He said many for-profit institutions emphasize customer service as part of their central business philosophy; and that the VA should be able to provide that service as well. He says that the recent decentralization initiative has been fruitful.

“[Over the last year] we’ve delivered a more positive customer experience. With a centralized system, a lot of the time the importance of customer service won’t filter down to the rank and file. It’s as much an attitude as it is a policy, and adding it to the evaluations makes it an effective policy. The Director requires five examples of outstanding customer service to be marked ‘exceptional,’” Dr. Morris said.

Another goal of customer service reform is to instill a culture of caring about the patient rather than just for the patient. Employees who demonstrate not just compliance, but internalization of ICARE values: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.  Those values are the behavioral and professional standards VA staff are held to, reminding them that they serving men and women who left their families and the comfort of home, and gone to risk their lives in the U.S. armed forces.

Dr. Morris noted that the bar for excellent customer service is not set by the Hippocratic Oath or the Nightingale Pledge, but is more about having a philanthropic perspective towards patient care, in line with VA Augusta leadership’s vision for customer service.

“Sometimes, you have staff who say ‘but I’m already helping people,’ —and they’ve missed the point entirely,” Dr. Morris said. “It’s not about doing what is expected of you as part of your job, but the ability to go above and beyond that. It can be something simple like helping a Veteran in from the parking lot or pushing a wheelchair.”

Doctors Blanchard and Morris both reported more involvement from their staff since the introduction of customer service reform, and they hope to see it expanded hospital-wide in the future.

Like the bright lights of the grid at night, relying on units from the most central to the most peripheral, an efficient customer service division works from the PENTAD office down to individual service lines. The inauguration of service-level champions in the past year, and the continuing effort to engage the staff at all levels of the hospital in professional altruism, sets an encouraging trend for the future.

Daniels said “There’s much more good than bad, most staff want to help improve the lives of Veterans. This is definitely where I’m supposed to be; I’m loving every minute of it, and I can serve more people here than I ever could before.”

(Karmin is a volunteer with the Public Affairs Office of the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. To become a volunteer at Charlie Norwood, call us at 706-733-0188 ext 5959/6347, or visit www.volunteer.va.gov.)