If Disney ran your hospital: what would Mickey and Minnie do?

by Carolyn Thomas 

Once upon a time, a former hospital administrator named Fred Lee was invited by the Wonderful World of Disney people to help them out. He had a great time facilitating Disney employee seminars like Customer Loyalty and Disney’s Approach to Quality Service. Then one day in 2004, he wrote an award-winning book combining his two loves (the Magic Kingdom plus running hospitals).  It was called If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently.

These days, Fred Lee teaches his If Disney Ran Your Hospital health care management strategies to hospital employees and senior administrators.   He believes that all hospitals can and should become places where:

  • employees say, “I love to work here!”
  • managers say, “I love the people I work with!”
  • doctors and nurses say, “We love our patients!”
  • patients and families say, “We love this hospital!”

Does this sound a bit too Disney-esque, even for Disney?  As patients, many of us have told horror stories, not fairy tales, about our experiences dealing with hospitals or their staff. In fact, Lee maintains that hospitals could learn a lot from Disney. Unlike traditional service organizations, Disney does not provide a service. Neither does your hospital. What both do provide, according to Lee, is an “experience.” Hospitals would do well to emulate the most vital experiences that earn Disney the love of both guests and employees.

Take coffee as an example of an “experience”. Coffee grounds cost a few cents. Packaged into a product? Worth about a quarter. Brew a cup and sell it – maybe a dollar. Cozy up in a plush sofa at Starbucks with your laptop or morning paper and a grande dark roast Ethiopian Sidamo: $4.  Customers are not only happy to pay this price – they line up for the privilege, and invite their friends to share the experience with them, too.

Perception is more important than reality.  As a hospital patient, my perception of what’s going on around me and how I’m treated IS reality, regardless of good intentions or good care. Lee says that hospital staff must learn to look at every interaction with us from the patient’s perspective, not from theirs.

He tells a story of a patient lying alone in her hospital bed one evening when a nurse poked her head in the door for a few seconds, but said nothing and then shut the door tightly as she left.  The patient felt abandoned, anxious and alone – shut off by the closed door.  This however was not the nurse’s perception at all of what had just happened. The nurse knew that shift change was about to happen with its accompanying noise of nurses arriving for the night shift and the day nurses going home; she wanted to shut the patient’s door so the hallway noise would not disturb her.

Lee suggests that the patient’s perception would not have been abandonment, but instead might have been gratitude for thoughtful consideration if only the nurse had taken five seconds to say to her patient:

“I’m going home soon, but I wanted to say goodnight, and also to close your door so you’re not bothered by the noise from the hallways.”

This brings up another of Lee’s unique tips: make a patient’s memorable hospital experience worthy of a dinner party story.  What’s a dinner party story? It’s all about compassion. Patients will remember compassion, especially when they are in need. To this day, I fondly recall the bedtime backrubs those saintly nurses at Hotel Dieu Hospital gave me every night when I was a teenager recovering from a ruptured appendix.  That’s my dinner party story about hospital compassion – and that was 43 years ago.  I remember very little of that month spent in hospital, emergency surgery, acute peritonitis, drainage tubes or pain – but I sure do remember the kindness and compassion in those nightly backrubs.

Do you have a dinner party story about your last hospital stay?

Lee reminds readers that a hospital employee’s compassion can’t be scripted or even ‘required.’ Imagine your husband saying:

“I love you, honey, because I’m required to.”

Lee insists that hospital staff must try to imagine what a patient is going through, what a patient’s family is like, what the patient is frightened about. Seems like plain old garden variety empathy to me, but through that imagination process, hospital staff grow capacity for compassion.

He also warns that too many hospital leadership teams delegate the management of culture and change to committees, hired consultants, coaches and trainers. These initiatives are doomed to fail, because culture and change are too important to be delegated.

Many hospitals also suffer from analysis paralysis. Lee thinks it’s good to ask “how?” but at some point, hospital leaders have to roll up their sleeves and dive in. The Disney Institute – created to showcase Disney best practices that easily adapt to other organizations – also provides corporate training to hospitals as well as Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, non-profits and government agencies.

Consider the Florida Hospital for Children, which has seen their patient satisfaction scores increase after their time with Disney Institute. After measuring patient and family satisfaction scores two years in a row, administrators there were shocked to find their facility ranked in the bottom 10% of hospitals nationwide.

FHC began implementing Disney Institute seminars, site visits and subsequent training sessions at the hospital. As a result, their patient/family satisfaction scores jumped from the bottom 10%  in the nation to the top 10%, employee morale soared, employee retention rates improved and the hospital’s pediatric emergency room is now ranked top in the United States. Disney Institute consultant Chris Caracci, himself a former health care professional, said:

“I’ve never seen a health facility turn it around so totally and quickly. It’s largely due to the hospital’s leaders inspiring the entire staff.”

Learn about Disney Institute’s Building a Culture of Healthcare Excellence program, or find out more about Fred Lee’s book, If Disney Ran Your Hospital.

See also: An Open Letter To Hospital Staff

4 thoughts on “If Disney ran your hospital: what would Mickey and Minnie do?

  1. We’ve all heard the question, what if Disneyland ran your hospital? While we can all appreciate the emphasis for customer service excellence that Disneyland for which Disneyland is renowned, there is one serious flaw with this hypothetical question. There is no EMTALA law for Disneyland. That is to say, you’re not granted admission simply because you show up there. You may feel entitled to enter, but Disneyland will not let you enter without first paying a substantial fee. Based upon this, we see how customer service excellence carries a high price, and those who accept to receive it are expected to pay a high price for it. This is not the case in healthcare. You’re entitled receive excellent healthcare service based on your opinion that you require it. Your opinion that you require entry in Disneyland will get you nowhere.
    Furthermore, if you are fortunate to afford Disneyland customer service, there are certain requirements contingent upon your being able to remain inside the magic kingdom. That is to say, if you act out with disruptive or obstreperous behavior, you are very likely to find yourself escorted out. In fact, inappropriate behavior will result in your removal from every other business except, of course, the healthcare business.
    We need to remember that when we make our grandiose comparisons to businesses such as Toyota, Disneyland, or the airline industry. All of these industries, carry a high price. Moreover, in none of these businesses is obstreperous or violent behavior tolerated. We do not have that luxury and healthcare. We do not have the right to expect our clients to pay. We are not permitted to have any civil expectations from our clients whatsoever. They are permitted to flout us. They’re perfectly free to disrespect us. They may freely disagree with us and not follow our advice. They’ll even have to pay. However, we are required to treat all people as if they could. This is clearly not the case at Disneyland, and therefore comparing healthcare to the magic kingdom is not appropriate.


  2. Seriously? I thought this was a gag until I kept on reading to the end. What will they think of next? Are we so brainwashed by our crazed spoiled-brat culture of instant gratification, GameBoy whining and demanding that we actually expect our hospital stay to be on the same level of “customer service” that a vacation to Disneyland would be? I’d settle for just getting my life saved and not picking up a superbug infection while I’m in hospital.


  3. This is truly brilliant, but I can already hear doctors muttering about insurance companies and overhead costs and demanding patients as reasons that they couldn’t possibly even THINK about altering their attitudes towards patient care.


  4. I’m impressed! I love this idea, and I also like the idea that hospital administrators and staff are actually attending training to teach them how to treat patients like ‘customers’.


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