Once upon a time, people talked about improving patient satisfaction as a way for health systems, hospitals, and independent practices to maintain and build their share of the market. A common analogy to the hospitality industry seemed fitting – if I’m a consumer with a choice of hotels for the annual family getaway, aren’t I going to select the hotel with the best amenities, the most wow factors, the familiar, reassuring brand name?
Of course I am, and the same often holds true for healthcare. After all, healthcare organizations are businesses. The growing preponderance of immediate care chains offering free coffee and snacks, bottled water, and flat screen televisions in every exam room is testimony to healthcare’s potential for overlap with hospitality, at least where customer service and marketing practices are concerned.
But healthcare is not the hospitality industry. Improving patient satisfaction as one would improve the satisfaction of hotel guests is a worthy goal, but it is not enough to truly do right by patients. In fact, studies have shown that focusing on patient satisfaction may have an ambiguous or even deleterious impact on patient health outcomes.
Why? To boil down a very complex issue, look for example to the patient with borderline high cholesterol, who has researched the risk factors online and determined that intervention with statins is the answer. When his physician declines to write a prescription, instead recommending lifestyle changes as a first-line approach to lowering borderline high cholesterol, the patient may leave feeling ambivalent about the visit. Yet the doctor made a medical decision she felt was in the best interest of the patient.
In the admittedly simplistic example above, neither of the implied outcomes is truly “satisfactory.” Either the patient receives a prescription for a medication he may not yet need, or he leaves dissatisfied and less likely to adhere to the clinician’s recommendations. Whereas a focus on improving patient satisfaction does nothing to suggest a better scenario, seeking to improve the patient experience offers a multi-dimensional approach in which the patient, clinician, and staff are all active participants.
At the hospital or practice with a strong focus on patient experience, the scenario may look very different indeed. Utilizing a patient experience survey and sophisticated analytics, patient experience leaders may have previously uncovered a perceived need for better listening and communication between physicians and patients, as well as better post-visit follow up. Now, with the right coaching, training, and processes in place, the clinician and staff are prepared to work in collaboration with the patient to improve outcomes.
As a result of attending to the care experience, rather than focusing on improving patient satisfaction, the practice has done right by the patient. The physician demonstrates that she understands the patient’s concerns and responds with sensitivity. Post-visit follow-up further supports adherence to the physician’s advice. Now the patient is not only more likely to feel satisfied; he’s more likely to do his part to improve or maintain his health.
So, in healthcare, we can place secondary importance on the amenities, wow factors, and satisfaction for satisfaction’s sake. At the end of the day, supporting patients’ engagement with their own health is the critical success factor here. Attending to the patient experience is how we can achieve this.