Q: How do we maintain patient experience in spite of all the COVID effects like masks and short staffing?

A: In recent research with a couple of St. Thomas colleagues, we tested the experience of "patients" engaging with health care providers wearing masks vs. those without. In particular, we presented the same "script" with actors changing only tone, facial expression and body language in delivering a positive vs. negative version of a consultation.

This research uncovered a number of things, but as it relates to the question above, the data showed that patients still seemed to perceive the meaning of facial expressions, in the context of other body language and tone, and grasp the intent of what went on behind the mask. So tell providers and staff to engage with patients as if wearing invisible masks.

Plus, with the right body language — focused gaze, open presence and other inviting actions — a focused service person can create a quick connection. Once established, a few acknowledgments of the limits due to staffing, and genuine effort to deliver the best possible experience in complex circumstances, consistently leads to overall positive perceptions of the experience.

Think about a time you visited a store or restaurant and received service from a clearly overwhelmed staff person. If that person continued to engage with you and kept you in the loop on the progress of your request, instead of feeling put out, you may have left with some sympathy for the worker.

Obviously, some patients and customers still approach service interactions with pre-COVID expectations. As anyone who ever delivered customer service can attest, some folks will always prove problematic. So, provide your team members with the tools and support necessary to manage troublesome cases.

Finally, remember that in health care, anyone wearing some form of scrubs becomes part of the "health care team" in the eyes of patients — that means all staff from custodians to administrators should be trained in how to interact with patients.

Mike Porter, EdD, is a faculty member in the marketing department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.