Mayday, Mayday! What Hospitals Can Learn From Recent Events in the Airline Industry

The sight of a 69-year-old physician being physically assaulted and dragged off a United Airlines flight recently took social media by storm, with United’s terse response in the immediate aftermath roundly criticized. Their CEO first defended the airline and described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” before publicly apologizing days later and vowing to do better.1

Unfortunately, this was just one in a series of customer service fiascos that have recently plagued the airline. Other incidents include a man threatened with handcuffs if he did not give up his first-class seat to another passenger,2 a mother forced to carry a toddler in her lap for a 3-hour flight when the seat she had paid for was given to a higher status standby customer, 3 and a 10-year old girl denied boarding because she was wearing leggings.4 In all these incidents the airline eventually apologized to the affected passengers, however, not before suffering serious damage to their brand and reputation.

What is the takeaway for healthcare providers?

While healthcare is certainly a lot different than flying, healthcare providers can learn many valuable lessons from United Airline’s experience.

1. One negative incident can impact your brand

It doesn’t matter if it is an airline passenger, hotel guest or a patient, in this age of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, any incident or interaction has the potential to go viral and impact your brand reputation. This is especially relevant in medical travel where patients may actually be engaging with airlines, hotels and hospitals as part of the medical travel care continuum. While you cannot completely eliminate negative interactions from occurring – especially outside of the healthcare setting, you can significantly reduce these incidents and their fallout by: 1. Ensuring proper training of staff and promoting a top-down corporate culture that is patient-centered and empathetic to the needs of medical travelers, 2: Providing appropriate oversight and setting expectations for any contracted services the hospital has that may impact medical travel patients, such as facilitators, hospitality organizations and ground or air transportation companies, and 3: Having a clear plan in place to quickly deal with negative incidents before they become PR nightmares. While this can be a scary thought, it should be comforting to know that the knife cuts both ways. A positive interaction can also go viral and have a beneficial impact on your brand.

2. Exceed patient expectations by turning a negative into a positive

Unfortunately, when things go wrong and patients complain, we sometimes have a tendency to get defensive or blame someone else. That’s human nature. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen even in the best situations and to the best of people. The important thing is not to make things worse by arguing or pointing fingers, this will only make the patient angrier.

When bad things happen we have two choices, we can argue about whose fault it was until we’re blue in the face, or we can sincerely apologize and, if deemed necessary, compensate the patient for the inconvenience suffered. Perhaps you can give your patient or companion a free skin-cancer exam, a complimentary meal, or even a short sightseeing tour. The important point here is to show your patients that you value them as people, as well as customers and that you are truly sorry for the problems they may have experienced, regardless of whose fault it was.

3. Use a bad experience to drive positive business change

After the unfortunate incident highlighted at the beginning of this article, United instituted several new policies including no use of law enforcement to remove overbooked customers from planes, a pledge to reduce the amount of overbooking, improved training for its workers and offering higher monetary incentives for customers willing to volunteer to take a later flight. 5 Mistakes and bad interactions must generate reflection and provoke action, otherwise, they will keep occurring. We should:

• Reexamine our policies and procedures to ensure they are aligned with our patient’s wellbeing in mind.
• Figure out the root cause of a patient complaint and address it.
• Identify processes that aren’t working and change them.
• Inspire a connection to the cause by clearly articulating to staff the reasons for the change in policy.

Ultimately, a negative customer interaction – regardless of whether it is publicized or not, should motivate us to learn from our mistake(s) and make positive changes that will benefit our patients as well as our organization.

For a another very interesting perspective on the United Airline’s incident and parallels to the patient experience in healthcare, we recommend reading, “What United Airlines Can Learn from Cleveland Clinic.”