Q&A: Sven Gierlinger, SVP & Chief Experience Officer at Northwell Health

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According to a study by Prophet, an alarming 81% of consumers are unsatisfied with their healthcare experience, and the happiest consumers are those who interact with the system the least.


Sven Gierlinger, Senior Vice President and Chief Experience Officer at Northwell Health, drives exceptional customer service and care within a demanding health care system. He's worked to ensure the culture of the company is engaging, innovative, and customer-centric. As a result, the organization has seen huge growth and customer loyalty over the years.


Our culture journey with Northwell Health began in 2015 when they wanted to take things to the next level and deliver remarkable patient experiences. We worked with Northwell Health’s OPCE [Office of Patient and Customer Experience] to build alignment from the top-down and create a custom culture roadmap.


In about two years, their employee engagement grew from 45% to 85%, and they saw a significant improvement in their HCAHPS scores [Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems]. You read more about their triumphs in the full case study.


A couple of years have passed since our time with Sven and his team, so we wanted to check in and see what’s new at Northwell Health.


Delivering Happiness: Five Northwell Health hospitals received top-50 national ratings in adult medical specialties in US News & World Report’s 2019-20 Best Hospital rankings. Where has your focus been as an organization over the last year?


Sven Gierlinger: We've spent the last year focusing on our administrative process such as appointment making, getting medical records, test results, returning calls after someone leaves a message, all the things that are very frustrating for patients and are essential to creating a good culture. We like to look at it from the patient's perspective and recognize the various pain points for the person.


We see the administrative process as equally important to the clinical part. We want to remove the friction that exists to make it more effortless so our patients can focus on healing. They can't heal properly if they are stressed and frustrated. We are investing heavily in a digital experience and designing an online app where patients can schedule appointments and handle their medical care without waiting. We want to make it easy to pay their co-pays and see their test results all in one place. We essentially want to kill the clipboard. We learn from other industries too. How are hotels doing it? How about airlines? With an airline, you can take care of a lot online. We'd like that same approach.


DH: A big success you had as a company was going from a 45% to 85% increase in employee engagement over a 2-year period.  Why do you think it's important to align your culture with your business goals?


Sven: They are interwoven. We've made amazing progress and people tell me all the time we have a very different culture than before around patient experience. The results that are representative of that are when our patients tell us about their experiences. It's important to align our culture in order to ensure and deliver world-class service.  We do this through what we call, our Culture of C.A.R.E. which is our framework for upholding our mission, values, and behavioral expectations. The acronym C.A.R.E. stands for Connectedness, Awareness, Respect, and Empathy. It symbolizes our promise to ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients.


DH: Can you describe some key ways you implement the practices and lessons you learned from Delivering Happiness today?


Sven: Delivering Happiness helped us learn how to engage leadership with our culture. One of the ways we do that is through storytelling. One practice we didn't do at the beginning but are doing now is at every executive meeting with CEOs, and VPs, we start the meeting with a patient story, video, or a letter so that we can remind ourselves who we are here to serve. It's a reminder that these are human beings we are impacting. It sets a different tone. 


The patient experience defines our culture and sustaining that has been an important priority. We can scale and spread it across the organization through employee engagement by storytelling. We can tap into emotions of why we are in healthcare and demonstrate how this world-class care we deliver impacts people's lives. We are changing lives.


One story we shared recently was about a child who was born with severe medical conditions. He couldn't talk or eat and he needed a tube inserted. Through the amazing care of our specialists, however, he was treated and now he is talking and eating normally. These are the stories we celebrate and share. 


DH: What's another innovative practice you've implemented since we've worked with you?


Sven: We've placed a big focus on the healing aspects of food. Hospital food is notoriously bad. We realized food is just a cost item on a budget in hospitals. No one really cares about it like they would in hotels. We've turned food from a liability to an asset for the patient. I see it as an opportunity to communicate to the patient that we love them and that this food is nourishing and healthy. I brought in a Michelin star chef named Bruno Tison to redesign our menu for both employees and patients, and it has been absolutely transformational. We have some of the best chefs in our kitchen now impacting lives through food.


In fact, we just received a letter from a patient in Manhattan. He says, "I love the food choices - braised short ribs, zucchini slaw, it was marvelous. I don't want to come back here but if this were a restaurant I definitely would. The food is great and it has truly helped me in my recovery."


Just 3 years ago we were at the bottom for food quality scores compared to the rest of the country. Today, we are in the 60th percentile for food. 


DH: Northwell Health had a goal to reach the 90th percentile in patient experience by 2020. We are now in 2020. Where is it currently in relation to that goal?


Sven: We haven't reached that just yet but we have reached a lot of components within that overall goal. The market we are in here on the East Coast makes it harder to achieve because of multiple factors; the amount of people, a fast-paced environment, and diversity. Queens is one of the most diverse cities in the nation with 180 languages spoken so not everyone that walks in speaks English.


We have a narrow focus in terms of measuring the in-patient score. There are generally more encounters on the ambulatory side, doctors visits, tests, and so forth, but not generally with inpatient and scoring that aspect. For emergency and urgent care, we have a lot of entities that are at the 90th percentile and a lot of units at our hospitals that are at that ranking. We also look at how our physicians are doing and what is the likelihood to recommend the physician. We are around the 80th ranking nationally, which is phenomenal.


DH: What are some goals you have for the future of Northwell Health?


Sven: I'd like to see us on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For. It's important that the entire organization is focused on the fact that we are changing lives and not just through medical procedures, but through the experiences we provide. 


UPDATE: Just two weeks later, Fortune Magazine ranked Northwell Health number 93 on its 2020 list! This is the first time the health system landed on the annual list. They are praised for their job satisfaction, innovation and initiatives focused on community health and outreach. Our team here at Delivering Happiness sends a big congratulations to our friends at Northwell Health!


Sven Gierlinger is responsible for creating a superior and consistent service experience for patients, visitors, and employees. Over the years, he has worked closely with leadership to drive culture change and improve the customer experience in every encounter across the healthcare system. 



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Karissa Barcelo

Karissa was born in New York City, raised in Miami Beach, and she currently resides in Las Vegas. For 10+ years she worked as a script supervisor, producer and copywriter for various commercials, TV shows, films and more. She helped produce buzz-worthy content for the entertainment news show Dish Nation and interviewed celebrities at major award shows such as the Oscars and the MTV Video Music Awards. She also managed marketing campaigns for high-end luxury brands. Producing compelling content with a killer marketing strategy behind it is her passion.

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