Common Misconceptions About the Patient Experience

Patient experience is not about smiles and making people happy. Yes, it’s possible to put a smile on a patient’s face though a warm handshake, better eye contact, or a kind word. But the emotions that result from those actions are ephemeral, and in the long run can easily be overshadowed by dozens of other ways in which the system fails the patient.

Patient experience is not simply having a cheerful, scripted staff.

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Similarly, patient experience is not the same thing as patient satisfaction, whether measured through HCAHPS, CGCAHPS, or any other acronym. There are three major shortcomings of patient satisfaction surveys:

  • First, at best, such surveys capture a point-in-time view of performance on a handful of activities. This is far from a comprehensive view of how a patient experiences a health system across time.
  • Second, patient satisfaction surveys measure what a third party (i.e., the government or an insurance company) thinks is important; such data can be useful, but might not tell you anything about what really matters to a particular patient.
  • Third, most patient satisfaction surveys don’t include any data on clinical outcomes, which is why some studies have found a negligible, or even inverse, relationship between satisfaction and clinical quality.

Patient experience is not a survey.

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In contrast, any discussion of the patient experience must begin with high-quality medical care. If we haven’t provided great medical care for that patient, then we haven’t delivered a great patient experience. But the discussion can’t end there. A good outcome, as defined by the patient’s clinical status, does not necessarily equate to a great patient experience overall. If the patient leaves us more confused than ever about what to do next, or if they can’t understand their bills, or if they suffered needlessly while waiting a long time for an appointment, then we have failed at creating a great patient experience. Even if the clinical outcome was superior.

Patient experience starts with high quality care, but doesn’t end there.

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Consumerism doesn’t have to be a dirty word in health care. Many clinical professionals, along with others who work in health care, bristle at any discussion of consumerism, and this resistance is perhaps understandable. Caring for a patient is obviously not the same as serving them their favorite coffee or helping them with their smartphone. But that doesn’t mean that health care has nothing to learn from advances that have been made in other industries. Can anyone honestly argue that health care has no room for improvement when it comes to scheduling, billing, follow-up, or communication? Your investments in improving the patient experience will only benefit if you ask the question, “What can we learn from other industries that have made it easier for their customers?”

Consumerism doesn’t mean you’re a commodity.

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Perhaps the most important thing to know about the patient experience is that it’s only going to become more important to get it right. Long-term market and regulatory forces will continue to push patients to be more informed, more accountable, and more discerning in how they access the health care system. High deductibles, data transparency, and disruptive competition are all trends that show no signs of abating. Providers can choose to ignore those forces, or they can embrace them and use their unique relationship with their patients to help make the system less confusing, less frustrating, and more responsive.

The patient experience is not a trend that’s going away.


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