June 09, 2015
3 Ways to Improve the Patient Experience

The idea of retail-style customer service in healthcare may seem to fly in the face of the practicalities and logistics of running a hospital or practice, but let’s flip it around: Would you like it if patients ignored you, didn’t answer your questions and seemingly came and went as they pleased? Of course not.

Certainly, the logistics of running a practice or facility make it impractical to offer spa-like service, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be standards. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) think so, too, having launched the Hospital Quality Initiative, the annual national, standardized, public reported survey of patients’ perspectives on hospital care. Here are three things you can do to improve the patient experience — while also making care safer and perhaps even less likely to be subjected to a medical malpractice claim.

1. Encourage empathy in staff

In this context, empathy is the ability to understand the encounter from the patient’s perspective. Rather than having an emotional connection to the patient (sympathy), the empathetic person is able to intellectualize what the patient is experiencing, and how their words and actions influence that experience. and it can be taught and maximized within your practice or organization. According to a recent conference presentation , observation of patient encounters — either in person (e.g., shadowing) or watching videos — is effective if there is subsequent reinforcement of what was seen and lessons about how the encounters could have been improved.

There are also steps that can be taken on a broader level. Look around: Are staff making eye contact or ignoring patients? Are physicians having a personal chat in the hallway, rather than in the break room? Changing these kinds of behaviors can make all the difference in how a patient perceives their experience, even if you have the most empathetic staff in the world during patient encounters. Empathy is for everyone, and it has a high correlation with patient satisfaction and clinical outcomes, making it doubly in your interest to create an atmosphere of empathy.

2. Focus on communication with patients

How many times have you tried to talk to the patient while taking notes on the contact and, as a result, have missed hearing some of what they were saying, or failed to thoroughly record details of the encounter? These kinds of communication failures not only signal a lack of empathy, they can result in serious consequences for your organization. First, taking the time to listen to patients about their symptoms, and to understand and respond to their questions, reduces errors and increases patient safety. Second, failures in communication are highly correlated to medical malpractice suits. In fact, one analysis found that 42% of malpractice claims could be attributed to communication issues, with about two-thirds of those breakdowns occurring in provider-to-patient communication.

“Physicians and other caregivers are challenged to understand what a given patient hears, comprehends, and retains in the throes of a health crisis,” says the analysis — so what steps can be taken to improve communication?

– Sit down during the encounter, listen attentively and answer questions honestly to create a feeling of partnership.

Address the patient by name, elicit their concerns, use motivational interviewing (e.g., “What happens when …?” rather  than yes/no questions like “Does this happen?”) to more thoroughly draw out information.

– Employ scribes, who will enter the necessary notes into the medical record, thoroughly and in real time, during the patient contact. This will free physicians to listen attentively and make a more informed decision about care.

– Provide formal training on communication skills for physicians and other staff on an ongoing basis.

3. Look beyond the encounter

The patient experience doesn’t end when the patient has been discharged, care plan in hand. It’s important to follow up with the patient — take the time to check in and see how things are going, whether they have any questions, whether there has been any change in status since the last face-to-face encounter. The hope is, that by providing an outstanding patient experience, there won’t be any bad reviews on social media — but it’s equally important to look at the perception of your facility and organization, and manage accordingly. One expert recommends proactively “putting positive information out there, publishing patient satisfaction letters,” and spending “a few minutes every quarter on your own marketing efforts to counteract any negative reviews,” among other good advice. And another analyst says you should look outside healthcare, comparing the patient experiences you provide to the “expectations set by the best players in hospitality industry, the financial services industry, and other areas where expert players have made a science of customer service.”

You might not be able to turn your organization into a five-star hotel, but taking lessons from retail will certainly help you raise the bar for the patient experience.