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The weight loss clinic

By Jessica Knapp.

“Good morning Robert. Thanks for coming in.”

“Hi Daisy.”

“Here, let me help you with your shoes.”

Of all of the difficult conversations in healthcare, talking about weight is one of the most difficult. Weight is so stigmatized. We all like to sit in denial when we’ve put on pounds. When a person is medically obese, the topic is not easy to address—for the patient or the provider.

Imagine the delicate work of a weight-loss clinic whose job it is to talk about weight with every patient, every day.

nd picture of all of the times the patient is forced to think about their weight in the course of one visit. The word “weight” is usually in the name of the clinic. The patient may or may not fit into the chairs in the waiting room … potentially a profoundly humiliating experience. They probably have to fill out a form detailing their diet. The PA checking them in will ask them to step on a scale, sometimes a body composition scale that requires removal of shoes and socks, which some people cannot do without help. Then they begin the actual appointment where their weight is the topic of conversation.

One of the most valuable assets a clinic like this can have is an employee who really connects with their patients.

“I’ll get your socks too.

“There ya go. Now just step there … perfect.”

Daisy was someone like this. She wasn’t who you would stereotypically imagine as the face of a business, but patients loved her.

She had long nails, a bad perm, and wore her perfume too strong for the office. She spoke loudly and a lot. Daisy used a heavy hand with her makeup, and her clothes were a little too tight. But she was empathetic, and she understood her patients’ struggle. She had worked at her particular clinic for 11 years leading weekly support groups for patients undergoing weight loss surgery.

“There ya go Robert. Sit here for a minute, and we’ll just put these slippers on.

“Perfect.”

The clinic was in a blue-collar community. I was hired by new ownership as a communication consultant. The new owners hoped to grow business and reach out to a broader customer demographic. One of the first moves they made was to fire Daisy.

The new owners lived in an upscale neighborhood near a competitive weight loss clinic. The offices and employees of this competitive clinic were sleek and classy. My clients aspired to this image. They believed the fancier exterior meant a better offer to their patients. 

But the clinic’s existing clients couldn’t have cared less whether the office looked fancy. They wanted safe and compassionate care, and they wanted a human connection with someone at that office. Daisy was the essence of that connection.

Instead of focusing on just being a thoughtful healthcare operation with a caring employee, they got caught up in the stigma of feeling lesser than, thinking they should design their appeal with a more status seeking client in mind. In reality, the superficial details didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how the office is decorated or how employees dress. What matters is service you deliver and how the employees make the patients feel.

The new owners assumed a “designed” appearance gave their business and their patients dignity. What gave them dignity was Daisy’s heart. A loving, caring, empathetic person who really understood the personal pain involved in needing help to take off one’s shoes.

Having empathy and true concern for your patients is where real dignity comes from. I was unable to help the new owners understand these basic human needs. 

“I’m thrilled with the progress you’ve made Robert. You should be proud.”

That was the last time Robert saw Daisy. Robert departed the clinic himself a few weeks after Daisy’s dismissal.

Newly acquired businesses often fail to perform as promised. Many are closed in the first few years after being acquired. Estimates of acquisition failure rates range from 60% to 90%. Cultural issues like those at the weight-loss clinic are often the cause of these failures. Businesses that depend on close interpersonal relationships between customers and employees depend on good feelings in these relationships to succeed. They are particularly vulnerable if the culture is not understood and nurtured by new owners.

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