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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Mass. General employees watch customer service video -- for $250

Massachusetts General Hospital wanted its 22,000 employees to watch an 11-minute video teaching the basics of customer service. But executives felt it would send a strange message to make niceness training mandatory -- and then penalize staff for not participating.

So instead, they offered employees a $250 bonus to view the video, an approach common in other industries and that proved to be an overwhelming success for the hospital.

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Some competitors have complained internally about Mass. General spending precious health care dollars on programs that are mandatory at other hospitals, particularly at a time when medical spending is under scrutiny. (Mass. General also offered employees a $50 bonus for getting a flu shot.)

But Dr. Alexa Boer Kimball said that while employees had to watch the video to be eligible for the bonus, it “was for an entire years worth of work and effort that contributed to a good financial year for the institution; we are pleased to be able to share that with those who work here.’’

Hospitals are now being rewarded and penalized by Medicare based on their customer service scores.

Kimball, senior vice president of practice improvement and service excellence for the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization, said the hospital requires that staff participate in crucial programs, such as fire safety, but tries not to overload them. “The amount of training we ask health care workers to do is substantial,’’ she said.

The hospital drew from research at Harvard Business School showing that paying employees for menial tasks turns them off, but paying them to learn new skills -- such as how to respond to a patient who has been kept waiting and is upset-- is motivating.

Mass. General President Dr. Peter Slavin narrates the video: MGH Service Excellence Every Day 2013: Positive and Satisfying Interactions with Our Patients, Families and Colleagues. He reminds staff that if a patient receives bad news and then steps into an elevator to find an employee with earphones in and music blaring, that might seem insensitive. It also gives practical steps for making restitution to a patient who has waited for a doctor far beyond the appointment time: Apologize and offer to pay for parking.

In the end, about 98 percent of employees watched it, including the hospital’s busy doctors. They have a slightly different incentive program, which also involved being paid to watch the video as part of a larger program of patient safety initiatives.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at Kowalczyk@globe.com. Follow her on twitter at @GlobeLizK

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