Lessons from Starbucks: How healthcare IT can help HCOs succeed through more empathic care

The Starbucks model is built around the customer who walks through their doors
By Jamo Rubin, MD
09:01 AM

To achieve the Triple Aim, healthcare leaders often target their attention first on processes that directly impact their bottom line. Valid and longstanding reasons exist for this approach. However, today's increasingly value-based environment requires health systems to expand their focus from processes of care to improving patients' experience of care.

Healthcare IT departments must play a central role by designing solutions that enable the delivery of more empathic care.

Current approaches to achieving the Triple Aim focus primarily on gauging process-related factors. These include readmission rates, patient failure to comply with treatment, and other measures that impact the bottom line. They also tend to work toward standardization and streamlining care practices, physician orders, leadership and administrative support and patient education. While certainly important to achieving the overall goal, these approaches are only partially effective in achieving the Triple Aim. This is because they result from looking at and addressing healthcare challenges from only one perspective: the health system's.

A better approach is for healthcare leaders to look at experience from the patient's perspective. They can then let their desire to improve the patient's journey inspire, or lead, improvement of care delivery. This is not to say that health systems should solely focus on experience instead of process. Rather, they should realize that experience leads successful process design.

Imagine for a moment that Starbucks was to suddenly focus its processes and experience solely around efficiency measured by throughput. This would no doubt enable Starbucks to deliver more coffee per hour at a lower cost. However, it would also force the company to sacrifice its brand promise. One that is centered on delivering a particular kind of customer experience. This is not to say that Starbucks doesn't focus on efficiency. However, efficiency is in the eyes of the beholder and defined accordingly. Approaching experience with this lens is what makes Starbucks so successful. It's why people are willing to pay more for coffee than they would, say, at McDonald's. The Starbucks model is built around the customer who walks through their doors--giving that person a great experience in addition to a great latte.

The healthcare delivery system is facing a similar challenge. A changing business model is transforming the relevant metrics from simple throughput to the Triple Aim. This places heavy emphasis on patient satisfaction and outcomes. Without embracing the concept that they are treating a person, and not just a patient, healthcare organizations won't be able to deliver the outcomes that payers and patients are seeking. Patients aren't just buying physical therapy, prescriptions or surgical procedures. What they're actually buying is a return to health. They want improved outcomes and a better experience at a lower cost. This is how they're buying everything else in their life and how they also want to interact with their care. If health systems don't focus on providing a better patient experience, then they will be further from delivering the Triple Aim. 

Healthcare IT must play a central role in getting organizations to this point. Chances are that health IT doesn't immediately come to mind as an area that should be concerned about patient satisfaction. IT has traditionally been positioned as underlying infrastructure far removed from patient experience. Nevertheless, IT plays an important role by bringing process to life. Design and process implementation has a profound impact on patient care. IT can either cement in bad processes. Or it can provide a solid platform for accountability, performance, and most importantly, for process improvement. Process is in the eyes of the beholder, making IT an under-recognized, but critical leg of the Triple Aim. It's arguably the most important factor in value-based care. Health IT provides an opportunity to capture and paint a picture of the patient. This helps hospitals move from activity-based views to value-based views. HCOs can continue to use IT simply to move blood pressure numbers from one floor to another and carry out other routine activities. But the next, even more impactful level, is for them to use IT to show how the capture and transfer of that information actually helps the person inside the patient.


Value-based care is pushing healthcare into a confusing and roiling new sea. IT needs to be at the front of the boat. Process should be the manifestation of the strategy, not the other way around. Information is driving change and innovation in healthcare. And innovation, in turn, always flows to the consumer. Today's most successful organizations will pick their customers and put them at the center of their processes, workflows, user interfaces, and all the functionality around their IT. This will form a better patient experience. 

If health IT departments and platforms can't be intimately tied to all the changes of a value-based environment, then those departments need to be given the visibility and the infrastructure to go through those necessary changes.