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Vincent Kane (left), director of the Wilmington VA Medical Center, joins Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie (center), and Delaware U.S. Sen. Tom Carper during a recent visit to UD to hear about the VA Patient Experience Academy.

VA secretary applauds UD-VA partnership

Photos courtesy of David Curtis and Veterans Affairs

UD’s VA Patient Experience Academy helping serve veterans better

After hearing all about the Veterans Affairs Patient Experience Academy being conducted by the University of Delaware for the Wilmington VA Medical Center, Delaware U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie both drew comparisons to encounters they had with Maya Angelou.

Carper recalled Angelou’s 1996 commencement address at UD, during his tenure as Delaware’s governor, in which she said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” He described Angelou’s frequently cited quote as a different way of wording the golden rule and said we have a moral obligation to treat people how they want to be treated.

Though Angelou is probably best known for her work as an author, poet and activist, Wilkie remembered her as a Wake Forest University professor during his time there as an undergraduate. He attended lectures by Angelou, had a chance to get to know her, and said that while she always emphasized culture, she also emphasized welcoming others.

“The first step in the veterans process is to make sure that those veterans who come to us are welcome,” said Wilkie. “If we don’t make them feel welcome that first time, all of the metrics, all the studies show us that we lose them. And it’s working here in Delaware.”

Carper and Wikie’s visit to UD’s Tower at STAR on April 29 included an opportunity to interact directly with some of the architects, facilitators and participants from the VA Patient Experience Academy (PXA), a multidisciplinary collaboration between UD’s College of Arts and Sciences, College of Health Sciences, Alfred Lerner College of Business and EconomicsHospitality Business Management department, and Division of Professional and Continuing Studies. With a mission “to make hospitals truly hospitable,” the Patient Experience Academy focuses on experience and engagement addressed through a variety of learning methods, including short presentations, targeted readings, facilitated discussions and situational practice sessions.

“We can have metrics, numbers that make it appear we are providing great service, but if people don’t really feel that they are appreciated, that we care about them, it’s really for naught,” said Carper. “One of the things that I learned a long time ago as a naval officer was that if it isn’t perfect, make it better. Everything I do, I know I can do better.”

According to Ali Poorani, UD associate professor of Hospitality Business Management, director of Hospitality Associates for Research and Training (HART), and principal investigator of the PXA, 75 percent of what hospitals do is hospitality.

“With all of the experience we have in hospitality, it became my mission that we can do hospitality through health care,” said Poorani. “We have had the greatest experience with each and every one of the students.”

Serving 375 participants engaging in five weekly, two-hour sessions in the Tower at STAR, the program began in February 2019 with VA managers comprising the first of five 25-person cohorts from the Wilmington VA Medical Center and VA primary care locations in New Jersey and Delaware. Training for 10 additional 25-person cohorts of frontline associates and health care providers will commence in the fall. Upon successful completion of the program, attendees receive a Patient Experience Academy certificate from the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Carper recognized the willingness of the VA, which was founded in 1930, to accept change and openness to trying something new and different.

“Hopefully, this will be a model for some other VA facilities around the country,” said Carper. “This man [Wilkie] has made it real clear that he wants, to the extent of our ability, the veterans to feel valued, loved and cared for wherever they seek the treatment.”

Tammy Schied, a Care in the Community administrative officer, said while the lessons provided through the audiovisuals, binders and speakers were valuable, there were very worthy intangible takeaways as well.

“What was an intangible, but was equally powerful, for me personally was our executive leadership and the conversations we were having with them about how this is what we are going to be doing,” said Schied. “This is not just words on a piece of paper. This is what we are striving for, and this is how we are going to do it. That made me walk away personally with a desire to do more.”

Richard Cetkowski is a nurse manager at the Wilmington VA Medical Center and participated in the VA Patient Experience Academy, a joint UD-VA effort to help veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

Nurse manager Richard Cetkowski said there was a lot of opportunity to take home multiple pieces of information that he could immediately apply to practice, including techniques for conflict management and overall ways to improve the veteran experience.

“At the end of the day, they [veterans] just want answers to the questions they are looking for,” said Cetkowski. “From a staff standpoint, we have implemented daily huddles at our clinics, and we’re going to be incorporating more and more into these huddles in the near future.”

Wilkie credited the program for fostering a culture of acceptance and making sure all of the people who work for the VA understand the language of service and that there is the sense of hospitality and the sense of welcoming.

“This university is on the front lines, and it sounds simple to us that you would take the best practices from the industry that relies on hospitality and acceptance; that is hotel and entertainment,” said Wilkie. “Sometimes it takes government a little longer than most people to accept the obvious. But here you are on the front lines of a new part of VA’s culture, and that is why I was very excited to come.”

Vincent Kane, director of the Wilmington VA Medical Center, emphasized that the reason his organization turned to UD was to support the veterans.

“The veteran is the one who really benefits from this type of partnership that focuses on how we provide them a very welcoming, dignified environment that demonstrates to them that we value and appreciate them,” said Kane. “It is a great privilege to work with UD, to have a chance for our staff to step away from the day to day to be in a learning environment, and to allow that learning environment to be contagious so it comes back to the medical center and our other staff, and our veterans feel that every day.”

Representing both the hospitality industry and academics, the PXA facilitators include Kathy Smith, former senior vice president of human resources at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company; Bill Sullivan, managing director of the Courtyard by Marriott – Newark at the University of Delaware; Allan Carlsen, UD assistant professor of theatre; and Sheryl Kline, UD deputy dean of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of hospitality business management.

“This program has been really rewarding, not only for the people who take the course but also for the people who teach it,” said Carlsen.

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