The “patient experience” has zoomed into the limelight over the past decade or so. Introduction of this phrase enabled the public to visualize the concept and recognize the value of maximizing the patient’s overall encounter with healthcare organizations. This has become even more essential in the healthcare industry today with the impetus of satisfaction surveys, Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS), and increased opportunities for patient engagement and involvement throughout the healing process.
For years, people have trusted physicians and healthcare providers to recommend hospitals and facilities that would intrinsically provide the best care possible. Besides word of mouth, no other tangible resources were available to help determine the best locations for surgeries or recovery from a serious illness. The Internet has offered patients the ability to learn more about their healthcare process and has provided access to information they can use to discover which service providers are reputable and to predict how they will be treated in any particular healthcare facility. Before this information was available via the Internet, people were more focused on finding a doctor within their health insurance plan than considering elements like bedside manner or service costs.
The advent of the focus on the patient experience in healthcare has been perhaps the single most nontechnology-centered advancement in healthcare in decades, with patients as the beneficiaries. Every hospital and healthcare facility across the country has allotted resources to improve patients’ perception, increase their involvement, and elevate healing outcomes. With the introduction of the government-driven HCAHPS and other satisfaction measurements, patients now have the ability to choose their healthcare provider or facility based on prior outcome results and other patients’ experiences. Many healthcare facilities have made great strides in addressing these issues, while others have struggled to attain identified goals or to sustain them when achieved. In many respects, there seems to be confusion among healthcare leaders regarding what patient satisfaction is, as opposed to the patient experience. Patient happiness is being confused with patient satisfaction, but they are not the same thing.
Hospital patients are sick, injured, or in physical distress: they are not concerned with hospitality luxuries associated with a 5-star hotel; they are focused on healing. “Patients are looking for respect—to have nurses and doctors communicate with them, and to have their care coordinated,” says Patrick Ryan, CEO of Press Ganey. “Let’s look at the patient experience in total as reducing suffering and anxiety. When you do that, you look across the entire continuum of care, from the first contact to the patient’s discharge.”
The Cleveland Clinic has initiated a new position to strengthen the healthcare experience: James Merlino, MD, is the Chief Experience Officer. He asserts that the biggest challenge for hospital staff is figuring out where to start, and defining exactly what the patient experience means. To some extent, slick marketing efforts have suggested that various amenities installed throughout the hospital drive patient satisfaction. Hospitals operating on a limited budget fear that they cannot afford to implement these things and will be left behind in the process. However, analysis of the data on resources devoted to the patient experience and results gained illustrate an interesting direction for the future.
Douglas Wood, MD, director of strategy and policy for the Mayo Clinic, sees the focus of the patient experience shifting in the future. “We will realize fairly quickly that we need to move away from the experience within the hospitals and clinics to the true, complete patient experience. It’s nice for hospitals to offer lots of amenities, but not many of us look forward to scheduling a stay in a hospital as we would look forward to going on a cruise.”
For hospitals to remain sustainable and relevant, the following key aspects of the patient experience must become a priority:
For the next 3 years, HCAHPS scores will equal 30% of a hospital’s value-based purchasing score of the Medicare program. Thus, emphasis on the questions within the HCAHPS survey will remain an important financial driver of patient-centered care.
Two categories of the HCAHPS survey that have received increasing attention since its inception involve communication. Patients give the highest possible score most frequently to whether doctors and nurses “always communicated” with them. The national average for these categories has risen 4% since 2008. This demonstrates elements that patients are identifying as essential to the patient experience, and that doctors and nurses are paying attention.
The healthcare model of the past has functioned similarly to the mass production scheme. Patients simply moved through the system from provider to provider, service line to service line, without much coordination among providers regarding the patients’ health. The model that is emerging places patients in the center, and surrounds them with clinical and nonclinical providers and systems all concentrating on prevention strategies and being proactive with health awareness to minimize costs, maximize value, and provide the ultimate patient experience.
Patient Experience of the Future
As hospitals and healthcare facilities update and modify their patient experience programs, some aspects of care will need to be revised. Six key aspects of awareness that can be initiated without significant financial investment include:
- Offering emotional support throughout patients’ period of care
- Allowing greater family involvement and assimilating them into the care team
- Minimizing disruptions to patients
- Training and educating hospital staff on how to be naturally caring and empathetic toward patients
- Delivering clear and understandable communication and education to patients about their care and the procedures they are experiencing
- Providing for patients’ physical comfort and needs
Patients in hospitals and healthcare facilities are often intimidated by the unfamiliar processes and activities that surround them. During the past several years, the healthcare industry has been focused on enhancing the patient experience—resulting in several positive steps forward. Hospitals and healthcare facilities that continue to adjust and improve patient-centered care will remain viable long into the future.