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Trying Some Disney Attitude to Help Cure Walter Reed

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

Fifty medical workers -- doctors, nurses, therapists and administrators among them -- sat in a room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center gazing at a slide of Donald Duck on a screen.

The oft-cranky Disney cartoon character, wearing his blue sailor jacket and cap, was in a palpable rage. His webbed feet had lifted off the ground, his beak was gaping, and his white-gloved hands were tightly clutching an old-fashioned two-piece telephone.

"We can clearly see he's frustrated," said Kris Lafferty, a trainer for the Disney Institute who was leading workers at the Northwest Washington hospital last week in a four-hour seminar on customer service. "Why do we think he's frustrated?"

A year after a scandal erupted over the long-term treatment of soldiers at the hospital, the Army has turned to Disney for help. "Service, Disney Style" is newly required for all military and other government employees at Walter Reed.

Lafferty and her fellow Disney trainer, Mike Donnelly, handed out little plastic Goofy and Mickey Mouse figurines as they led Wednesday afternoon's discussion with the workers -- some in uniform, some in scrubs, some in civilian clothes.

Various theories were offered for Donald Duck's ire: He was getting the run-around. He could not get a question answered. He was flummoxed by his antique phone.

The lesson: Poor service equals frustration.

At the tables, heads nodded in agreement. It's a familiar story at Walter Reed, where wounded soldiers and their families often confront a numbing bureaucracy.

The Army is paying Disney $800,000 to help revamp attitudes at the hospital.

"It sounds a little odd, but it's true," said Rear Adm. John Mateczun, commander of a joint task force overseeing military medicine in the Washington region.

Col. Patricia D. Horoho, commander of the Walter Reed health-care system, said the goal is to change the culture there. "When you enter the hospital, we want it to be the best experience possible," she said. "Disney fits that.

"One day of training with Disney isn't going to change our hospital," she added. "Disney is one piece of a whole systemwide process we're trying to change."

In another step, Walter Reed held a grand opening ceremony this month for its "Warrior Clinic," billed as "one-stop shopping" for recovering outpatients. Soon greeters will be placed on the first floor of the hospital to help new arrivals find their way around. And a concierge service will be established to help patients and families, said Sara Berschet, customer service director at Walter Reed.

Last week, nearly 200 Walter Reed employees sat through training by the Disney Institute, a branch of the resort and entertainment empire that offers seminars on what the company calls "the business behind the magic."

Clients often include institutions that have encountered problems because of poor service. "It almost always begins with the need for more service," said Bruce Jones, programming director for the institute, based in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. "What happens is somebody will say, 'Why not Disney?' "

Other government and military entities -- among them the FBI, the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office, which handles the nation's reconnaissance satellites -- have trained with Disney, Jones said.

The Navy hired Disney about 10 years ago to improve its medical service, Mateczun said. Customer service ratings improved.

Disney is "sort of a benchmark on how to work with customers," Mateczun said.

The Washington Nationals hired Disney to give team executives and supervisors tips on how to keep fans happy at the baseball stadium that opens next month in Southeast Washington.

National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington also has recently trained with Disney, according to Jones. He said about 20 percent of the institute's business comes from the medical industry. "It's a group that's decided to put the care back into health care," he said.

Walter Reed expects more than 2,000 workers to go through the four-hour sessions, which began last month and will continue through July.

Disney often encounters questions about its relevance to hospitals and other institutions. "People will joke about 'a Mickey Mouse operation,' " Jones said. "We generally have to inoculate against that with the audience."

Wednesday afternoon's training session at Walter Reed, held in a hospital meeting room decorated with Disney balloons and loaded with cookies and soft drinks, began with more than a little skepticism evident.

Donnelly, who started working for Disney in the summer of 1986 as a guide on Disney World's Jungle Cruise ride, warmed up the crowd. "We're going to kick it off today with what we call 'Sizzle,' " he said. "Here it comes!"

A video montage of Disney-related images, ranging from Mary Poppins to Pirates of the Caribbean to Hannah Montana, followed. It was meant to demonstrate the sheer expanse of the Disney empire.

Not everyone in the crowd looked impressed. "If you are skeptical right now, that's okay, I am with you," Donnelly said.

Lafferty, who was a Navy lawyer before she started a second career with Disney, led the audience in a discussion of similarities between Disney and the Army hospital. (Both are dedicated to "making people feel better"; both are "subject to media scrutiny"; both are named after famous people named Walter. )

The Walter Reed employees learned the Disney lexicon. Employees are called "cast members." Customers -- or patients -- are "guests."

Then it was on to what Lafferty called the "Disney difference": "You have to know and understand your guests."

Much of it involves paying attention to details that matter to patients and visitors, Lafferty noted. "If I go to the doctor's office and all the plants are dead, I don't have a good feeling," she said.

A wheelchair with frayed padding on the arm rests leaves a lasting impression, Donnelly said.

As a contrast to the irate Donald Duck, the trainers showed a slide of a beatific Snow White, holding a broom in a spic-and-span room and surrounded by happy animals. (Lesson: "You can't sweep it under the rug," Lafferty said.)

During breaks, some Walter Reed employees expressed surprise at the relevance of the training to their jobs.

"This is good," said Jan Yatsko, head nurse for vascular surgery at the hospital. "It's not what we expected."

Navy Lt. J.D. Garbrecht, a physical therapist who treats multi-trauma patients, said the seminar was a useful reminder of the need to combat the "one-size-fits-all" mentality that often pervades Walter Reed.

"The guys from the line units, they don't like it touchy-feeling, but the 65-year-old grandmother wants a different perspective," he said.

"It's a good thing that we desperately need at Walter Reed," said Dorothy Clinton, a nurse in the pulmonary and sleep section, where she helps patients suffering from traumatic brain injuries. "Everybody who works here at Walter Reed realizes that there are issues, and this is a good indication that the command recognizes that."

Late in the day, Donnelly gave some advice that seemed to resonate with his audience: "Get in a wheelchair and look at these processes through the shoes of your patient."

Staff writer Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.

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