Wanda Sharp is the Director of Patient Relations and Patient Experience for The Queen’s Health Systems. She worked as an English teacher before launching her second career in healthcare with a passion for patient advocacy. Her interest in non-profit, locally owned health systems took her to Queen’s where she’s had a measurable impact on their culture. We spoke with Wanda about her career, her mission, and how she helped to address burnout by reconnecting the team to their purpose.

CBK: How long have you been at Queen’s?

Wanda: I’ve been here for four-and-a-half years. I have had a long career that started with a health system in New Jersey, which was locally owned. Then I moved to a for-profit system and eventually ended up in a large faith-based corporation. After those experiences, I realized that I wanted to return to locally-owned health systems because I’m then in a position to really guide the work at the local level. It just so happened that the exact opportunity I was looking for was in Hawaii and it was a great health system. I came just to oversee the Punchbowl location, and since have been promoted to system director.

CBK: That’s great that you were able to really hone in on what you wanted to do and then found the perfect fit.

Wanda: I know, right?

CBK: When you’re looking at your patient experience impact, what’s something you keep at the front of your mind? It’s a big job.

Wanda: I lead from the voice of the patient. I feel that, fundamentally, patients’ rights are where you start the work, and from there you build. We recognize that there are times when we aren’t using interpreters to administer healthcare, when we could be. Our next campaign is around helping leaders recognize that not only is it the law, but we have policies that support a patient’s right to receive healthcare in their preferred language. It’s a journey that never ends. It’s important to not make patients victims of your processes. It’s important to recognize that patients don’t leave their rights at the door. You have to establish their partnership in the healthcare journey. I would probably say that’s what drives me, that’s what keeps me passionate, and while I don’t get on that soapbox every day, I have to focus on different things every day, I know that that has to be the backbone of what we do here.

CBK: Obviously the patient experience and advocating for patient rights is a huge part of what we do. And Queen’s is really unique and has a unique set of challenges too, being both an island system as well as having really unique language requirements that can make it really difficult to get what you need.

Wanda: My son is a nurse, so one of the things always on the forefront of my mind is that the caregivers need the tools to do the job. If you don’t have the tools, you can’t do the job. Bringing Cloudbreak Martti here was the best remedy, providing every department access to an interpreter. The law is pretty clear that the interpreter is supposed to be used any time that you are administering care, providing information, planning… The challenge is that we have caregivers who are moving in and out of the room quickly, and they don’t always have the time to wait for an interpreter. And then there’s the question of, can you get a Chuukese or Marshallese interpreter, which are languages that are big here.

CBK: And of course, there’s the big question we’re all facing: How has COVID impacted your work? Are you able to use digital resources like Martti to help address that dynamic change in the hospital?

Wanda: The minute we started treating COVID patients, we knew that Martti was going to be able to help us do that in some form or fashion. We also used iPads to be given to patients so that they could connect with their families, as we were trying to minimize the number of caregivers in the room. But we did deploy those tools so people could stay connected.

CBK: I was reading the material on the website, and Queen’s talks about The Queen Emma Way. Can you talk about that culture?

Wanda: They brought me here to improve their HCAHPS scores, which means I have to ask the deeper questions of “What’s the culture that is supporting a great patient experience?” I took executives, frontline managers, and other staff through a dialogue about the heritage of Queen’s. What I learned was that Queen Emma was the original patient advocate for the health system. Not only had she built the hospital, along with her husband King Kamehameha IV, but she came into the hospital day after day meeting with the suffering. And that is where the real opportunity was. Instead of giving employees a list of ten things to do, we said, “If you just live the way Queen Emma lived, with her heart and acts of kindness, you will be true to the mission at Queen’s.” So living The Queen Emma Way became very quickly a mantra that caught on. That became the platform for not a program, but a movement. And the movement is to re-sensitize staff, to reconnect them to purpose, by teaching them about our heritage.

CBK: That’s such an inspired purpose, I really admire that. I know that in a lot of the work we do we see how burnout has made a lot of frontline workers really disconnected from their purpose and their patients. And re-instilling that joy in them can make a huge difference.

Wanda: At the height of COVID, we shut down the hospital to visitors. Our organization didn’t want to just send impacted staff home without work. So we kept our employees on hold, which meant even though some areas were closed, they were still able to come to work and earn their wages. We selected 10 RNs to do a training. We had them talk to patients, not to administer any care but just to listen. That ended up being one of the most incredible projects we’ve done. Not only did we learn what it did for the patients, obviously who appreciated it, but the nurses came back feeling the impact they had. One of them said, “I really felt like the Queen that day.” I believe in relationship work. When I hear a story like that, I think “That was impactful for our patients, they said they appreciated it, but look what it did for our nurses and returning them back to purpose.

CBK: Returning back to purpose seems like a really good through line for the work you’ve accomplished at Queen’s. What kind of advice would you share with your peers who are trying to do the same?

Wanda: The connection to humanness is something that, if we lose that connection, that’s what creates the burnout. If you can’t connect the tasks to the humanity of your work, that can cause job dissatisfaction. You can lose heart for the work. The heart is what keeps the fire going. I tell the story of food service workers. They might say, “Well, I put utensils on the tray on the assembly line.” I would say, “No you don’t. You feed people. That is your purpose, your greater purpose.” You’re one cog that does one task, but the end game is we’re feeding people. Maybe you work in the auto industry and your job is to put one lug into the wheel. You might say, “My job is to put that one lug into that one wheel.” I say, no it isn’t. It’s to keep people safe. It’s to keep a family that has children in a car safe. Connecting back to humanity is the one thing we have to keep the energy going and flowing.