What Is Patient Experience?
Patient experience comprises all of the ways that a patient interacts with a medical provider. Both positive and negative experiences with doctors, nurses, office staff, administrators, clinical trial professionals, insurance agents, and even pharmaceutical representatives shape the patient’s overall attitude and affect health outcomes.
In order to provide high-quality, patient-centered care, it is important to cultivate an end-to-end patient experience focused on putting the patient’s needs first. We’ve put together some ideas on how medical professionals can improve patient experience in their practice.
Defining Patient Experience
Patient experience encompasses all the ways that patients connect with their health care providers. Obvious examples include formal communication with medical staff, pharmacists, office workers, and administrators. Less obvious examples might include things like making sure the facility is accessible, especially during times of construction or maintenance, and preventing potentially negative encounters, such as making sure employees who smoke do not do so near the medical facility. Regularly reviewing behaviors, habits, policies, procedures, technology, and premises from the patient’s point of view will help to ensure a positive and inclusive experience.
Note that patient experience also includes the entire care circle's experience. Patients who are unable to attend to their own medical needs – e.g., those who are young, severely ill, or have a disability – may have family members who help them with accessing medical care. It is just as important to consider the experience of engaged family members and other supporters as it is the patients themselves.
Patient Experience vs. Patient Satisfaction
Patient experience and patient satisfaction are often confused. A patient’s experience can affect the level of satisfaction, but satisfaction can also be affected by a patient’s expectations. Managing those expectations is part of the overall patient experience, and doing so effectively will often lead to higher rates of satisfaction.
Measuring patient satisfaction is not enough in itself in terms of enhancing our understanding of how to improve the patient experience. It is important to ask both qualitative and quantitative questions when requesting feedback from patients. Such feedback may not always be easy to obtain, so offering multiple ways for patients to supply comments about their experience is best. Real-time feedback has as much of a role as satisfaction surveys that may be sent out later.
5 Ways to Improve Patient Experience
There are many factors that affect patient experience, some of which may be unique to the health organization’s people and operations. At a high level, however, the following factors are some of the most important ones to consider when working to improve or maintain a positive patient experience.
1. Foster A Caring Culture
Organizational culture plays a significant role in patient experience. Culture relates to how the organization operates, including everything from the day-to-day tasks of those who oversee a patient’s care plan to the high-level decision-making process of executives or others in leadership roles. Health care organizations that focus more on the bottom line than on the experience of care will have a hard time making significant improvements.
Rethinking a health care organization’s culture – and the patient experience – can happen at any level, and organizations that encourage innovation and creative improvements will most likely experience the best benefits for their patients. Some organizations are even hiring “Chief Experience Officers” to help shift their culture to a more patient-centered approach.
2. Communicate Better With Patients
Patient communication is more complicated today than ever before. In addition to face-to-face conversations with doctors and office staff, patients may receive emails, phone calls, texts, app-based information, and even good, old-fashioned snail mail. The communication choices currently available are incredible, but they can also negatively impact the patient experience if they are not used appropriately.
Communication is important because it helps maintain a continuum of care. Some patients may only want their medical provider to send them appointment reminders and bills. Others will appreciate a wider variety of communications that provide helpful information about their own medical issues or other health concerns they may be facing. Offering communication options that meet the needs of a diverse patient population – and making it easy to find and update those options – will help improve the patient experience.
When looking at communication options, be sure to consider innovative patient education materials like comic books, videos, and podcasts to help patients understand the nature of an illness, procedure, medication, and other health topics.
3. Connect with Patients on a Human Level
Connecting with patients on a human level is a critical component of care delivery – even when those connections have nothing to do with medical care itself. Patients will generally have a more positive experience if they have a good rapport with their doctors, nurses, and other staff.
Making a human connection can happen during any interaction, from making appointments to having conversations about whether a patient will be able to pay an unexpectedly large bill. Finding a way to show genuine interest in patients as people lets them know they are valued. First points of contact are critical, but ensuring end-to-end communication with patients at every stage in their journey is just as important.
4. Address Patient Expectations
A remarkable amount of the patient experience is driven by expectations about their care. Studies have shown that quality of life is affected significantly by the gap between patient expectations and the actual care experience, and different expectations can lead to different views about their quality of life – resulting in different experiences for patients despite receiving the same care.
Setting patient expectations about their care up front can lead to a much better experience. While it is good to give patients hope and encouragement, medical providers should not over-promise or imply that a patient’s outlook is better than it really is. Likewise, when dealing with administrative or billing issues, expectations should be set up front, so that patients understand what to expect in terms of payments, insurance submissions, and related activities.
5. Ask for Feedback
Perception is related to expectation in that it requires tailoring communications to make sure patients understand exactly the type of care they receive (or are going to receive). Patients who believe they are receiving one type of care, only to receive another, may be confused, angry, and feel like the quality of care is not as good as it should be.
Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) surveys can also improve the patient experience by giving health systems important information about how patients think they are doing. Hospitals and other medical centers should use HCAHPS feedback to make quality improvements that will benefit the patient experience.
Benefits of Improved Patient Experience
Why should medical providers worry about the patient experience? Here are a few of the reasons why we should make the patient experience a priority.
1. Improved Patient Safety and Clinical Outcomes
A review published in BMJ Open looked at evidence from 55 studies to better understand the relationship between patient experience, patient safety, and clinical outcomes. The authors of the review concluded that there is indeed a positive relationship between these three factors, and that a reduction in focus on the patient experience could actually result in a reduction in patient safety, as well as having a negative effect on clinical outcomes.
2. Less Utilization of Unnecessary Health Care
Overtreatment is a growing problem, some of the reasons for which can be attributed to poor patient experience. Patients who believe they did not receive the right type or quality of care may often seek additional care, which may not be needed and could even be harmful, depending on their medical situation. At least some patients who report a positive experience have lower readmission rates, depending on the severity of their disease.
3. A Better Relationship With Disease
Finally, from the patient perspective, a positive experience can help patients better cope with the realities of the medical issues they are facing. Particularly for those facing a poor prognosis, positive patient experiences can lead to a better quality of life by helping the individual focus on supportive or palliative care, rather than on negative experiences with their medical provider.