ATD Blog

Cleveland Clinic's Culture Focuses on Patients First

Monday, August 24, 2015

“Patients First” is the guiding principle of the Cleveland Clinic; the organization strives to provide outstanding and compassionate care and service. But creating the kind of culture capable of delivering such comprehensive service was a process years in the making. 

Several years ago, the Cleveland Clinic embarked on a journey to create a “Patient First Culture,” which it now refers to as the “Cleveland Clinic Experience.” The ultimate vision was to provide excellent patient satisfaction and have highly engaged caregivers serve patients—and fellow caregivers—with high quality, cost-effective, and safe patient care. 

To culturally impact thousands of providers and caregivers—not to mention millions of patients—was a daunting task, indeed. The Cleveland Clinic learned that change is possible, though, when it is for the right reason: outstanding patient and employee experience. What’s more, we learned that change needs to start at the top. 

In fact, leadership realized that if Cleveland Clinic was to continue to be a world-class organization, the culture would need to change. Improving patient experience and employee engagement required a commitment to deep-seated change that would transform Cleveland Clinic’s culture, and fundamentally its leadership framework.  

This new framework would need to present a fundamental change in thinking, a new approach to problem solving, and demand caregivers learn how to communicate with patients and each other more effectively. Fortunately, the framework for cultural change was driven by the president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, Delos T. Cosgrove, MD. In other words, this would not be a delegated task or outsourced project. 


The Cleveland Clinic team chose to embrace the leadership philosophy model of The  Serving Leader, written by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert. Its principles were used to develop a training manual specific to Cleveland Clinic staff, and served as an outline to start intensive staff training. 

Once developed, training and other change-related efforts were launched by invitation—instead of a mandate—to executives, leadership, and managers in the organization. These folks were asked to participate in “cohorts” where they were introduced to the ideas, principles, and practices laid out in The Serving Leadership. 


In addition, a common language was developed and key competences were shared. An additional key element was to integrate Serving Leader competencies into the caregiver’s job roles and evaluate each person on Serving Leader practices in the annual performance evaluation process. Finally, to guide staff toward this new perspective, we created a visual map on the “Cleveland Clinic Experience” that illustrated the patient experience from multiple perspectives, the values Cleveland Clinic strived to deliver, and the “Patients First” philosophy. 

Join me for the webcast August 27, 2015, “Creating a Patients First Culture: How the Cleveland Clinic Produced Lasting, Sustainable Change,” to learn more details on Cleveland Clinic’s journey.

About the Author

Michael O'Connell is vice president of clinical and support services for Marymount Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic hospital, in Garfield Heights, Ohio. He is responsible for hundreds of employees in the departments of radiology, lab, cardiopulmonary services, pharmacy, security, emergency management, and facilities. Michael oversees services at three campuses; serves as the corporate compliance official, safety officer, and environment of care chairman; and is responsible for all construction and renovation projects. He is executive sponsor for the hospital’s Green Team and Helping Hands Committee. Prior to his current position, Michael served in various leadership roles at Cleveland Clinic for 15 years, including vice president of clinical services, vice president of operations and physician services, vice president of professional and physician services, and senior director. Michael has a master of health administration degree from Saint Louis University and a bachelor of science degree from University of Illinois, Urbana. He is certified in healthcare management and medical practice and is a fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives and American College of Healthcare Executives.

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