What medicine can learn from Disney


When I was a young child, like most children, I loved Disney. However, my fascination with Disney did not involve the exhilarating theme parks, characters or delicious foods. As a young boy, I was captivated by the Disney culture, the multifaceted business model and the life and legacy of Walt Disney. During the past two decades, I have continually studied these complex concepts. Concurrently, I was pursuing a scientific education and medical training. My initial interest in health care — including medical quality improvement, complex systems, and customer satisfaction — stemmed from many of the same curiosities and challenges associated with Disney.

Like many others, I am focused on learning from the ever-evolving health care culture, business model and history. The health care industry has benefited immensely from many other sectors, such as the airline and nuclear industries. The adoption of quality measures and strategies from these high-risk industries has improved medical outcomes and patient safety. Although Disney and health care are not generally comparable, many key concepts are similar for comparison. More importantly, many similarities could potentially create unique solutions in both industries. Leaders in health care can learn several key principles from great organizations like Disney. The purpose of this article is not to suggest that the health care industry should replicate Disney’s model or design, but instead, to examine certain aspects that could improve the health care industry and ultimately the patient’s experience.

I believe that one of Disney’s most impressive foundational concepts is the culture it has created. Although Disney contains many different ecosystems, they all reflect the company’s overall mission and purpose. All employees, from the frontline to the backline, clearly and effectively represent the company’s mission to be the world’s leading producer of quality entertainment. Since the beginning, the secret to this impeccable culture has been a passionate and polished training program. Before the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney himself created a program to train and educate all employees so that they could provide the optimal Disney experience. The Disney training program, now formally known as Disney University, provides a near-perfect educational experience, focusing on the customer and instilling the highest entertainment standards and values.

Disney employees, famously rebranded as cast members, receive many training and educational opportunities. They learn about Disney’s history and traditions, leadership, personal and professional development, and job training. The key to Disney’s training success is the investment in each cast member. Regardless of titles or responsibilities, each employee is responsible for contributing to the customer’s experience. Whether you are an intern, a garbage picker, a churro seller, a stage performer or Mickey Mouse himself — all cast members are responsible for Disney’s overall mission of providing magical experiences and unmatched entertainment for each guest. Disney’s training model has been extremely successful and has created optimal guest satisfaction and organizational success.

I have often asked myself how certain aspects of the Disney model could be used to potentially improve health care delivery. Although I would love to visit the hospital a magical experience, there are more realistic and important lessons to be learned and applied. Throughout three decades of annual visits to the different Disney parks and properties, I have witnessed multiple cases of Disney cast members taking the opportunity to interact with guests uniquely, thereby significantly contributing to the overall quality of entertainment and guest satisfaction.

One experience that stands out involved a cast member who worked as a ride operator. In addition to ensuring excellent coordination and safety, this cast member noticed that an autistic girl wearing a Cinderella dress was having a difficult time waiting in line for the ride. The combination of the stimulating environment, hot weather, and a confined space was quickly becoming intolerable. In true Disney fashion, the cast member went above and beyond. The cast member quickly noticed the situation and arranged for the guest to board the ride comfortably. I continued observing as the ride ended and the family exited. The family expressed gratitude for the accommodation. Then, due to the circumstances, they began heading toward the park exit for an early end to the day. The cast member immediately noticed a potential opportunity and asked the family to wait briefly. Within three minutes, Cinderella had arrived and spent time with the girl, likely creating positive memories that would last a lifetime for both the little girl and her family. Although the cast member had not received training for this specific scenario, she was trained, prepared and dedicated to Disney’s mission and purpose.

I do not suggest that the health care industry should incorporate every aspect of Disney’s approach. This would be like comparing apples to oranges. However, just as apples and oranges are both fruit, the entertainment and health care industries are both gigantic entities that can glean insight from each other.

Another story illustrating excellent training and successful internalization of an organization’s mission and purpose involves a hospital employee named Maria. Maria had been a hospital housekeeper for the past 15 years. She was well-trained. As she continued her career, she successfully trained many other housekeepers. One day, a patient was admitted for post-surgical monitoring and evaluation. Over the course of a few days, the patient and Maria became acquainted through many brief conversations in the patient’s native language. The patient was nearing discharge with no complications. One morning, Maria entered the patient’s room for her routine daily cleaning and maintenance. Like she had done every other morning, Maria initiated a conversation with the patient. This particular morning was different from the others. The housekeeper noticed that the patient was displaying word mixing and confusing speech. Maria reported the abnormal behavior to the medical team. It was noted that earlier that morning, during rounds when an interpreter was used, this issue was not present. Ultimately, due to an unrelated medical problem, this patient was experiencing a stroke. Early detection by the housekeeper directly resulted in timely treatment and the best possible outcome for the patient. Through many examples similar to this, we can see that all employees in a health care system can significantly help improve patient care and satisfaction.

Similar to Disney’s training concept that all employees are cast members who significantly contribute to the guest’s experience, the health care industry would benefit by embracing the concept that all employees of a health care system can add substantially to the patient experience, satisfaction, and improved outcomes. Whether someone is an assistant, a nurse, a custodian, a researcher, a therapist, a housekeeper, a physician, a manager, or an executive — he or she has the capability and responsibility to contribute to patient safety, improved care and satisfaction. This can be achieved by learning and adopting the best of each industry to continually improve health care and the medical profession.

Tyson Schwab is a primary care physician and can be reached on Twitter @tysonschwab.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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