As our health care system slowly but surely shifts from a volume-based model to a value-based model, the associated growing trend towards patient-centered care is being embraced by care facilities of all kinds, from established hospitals to brand-new ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs). While boosting patient engagement—that is, the involvement of patients in the design of their own care—is typically the ultimate objective, many health care organizations are also taking advantage of this volume/value shift to address an equally important, and often elusive, goal: patient satisfaction.
The general consensus is that if the health care industry is to achieve true patient-centered care, organizations must focus harder on patient satisfaction. After all, patients are health care facilities’ customers, and today’s customers have increasingly high standards when it comes to the kind of experience they’re expecting. And while there’s no question that major systemic change is challenging, there are still plenty of steps that care facilities can easily take to improve the overall quality of the patient experience, and lead to a broader, positive shift in the patient-provider relationship. Here are six examples:
Eliminate the cues of indifference and uncaring.
There are so many small social cues that care facilities perpetuate, both consciously and unconsciously, that signal to patients that their experience is not the provider’s main concern. Health care professionals ignoring or avoiding eye contact with patients they are not directly responsible for; self-important medical students hurrying down the halls; waiting areas located in the middle of noise and traffic from different administrative areas; vending machines that are always out of service. These details may seem small on their own, but taken together they can add up to an overall impression of serious dissatisfaction.
See the care experience from the patient’s perspective.
One reason why providers can have difficulty understanding the dissatisfactory elements of their facilities is simply that they are too close to the problem. To help address this, providers must make an active effort to see the care experience from the patient’s point of view. Simple exercises like parking in the patient parking area and seeing how long it takes to get to the main entrance on crutches, or bringing in a person who’s never been to the facility and following them while they try finding their way around, can offer an important new perspective on the challenges of an institution that most staff and employees take for granted.
Learn how to apologize.
The defensiveness with which employees often meet service complaints from patients is a common problem in the health care industry. But increasing patient satisfaction means knowing how to take the patient’s side, with empathy and without allocating blame, even in situations that might seem irrational. Other industries have long since learned the value of an apology when it comes to diffusing customer complaints; it’s time for the health care industry to learn it, too.
Teach every employee how to handle a complaint or a concern.
Just as every employee should know how to apologize to a patient, they should also know how to actively handle a concern raised by a patient or family member. This can be as simple as helping employees make the mental shift from “I can’t help you” to “I will find someone who can help you.” It’s important to make sure that every single employee understands this practice, because patients who cannot find the appropriate person to direct their concerns to will often simply take them to whoever’s closest, whether that’s a senior administrator or a cafeteria worker.
Improve your systems as well as your attitudes.
It’s certainly true that improving soft skills (like learning to apologize) is a vital step in boosting patient satisfaction, but this is only half the battle: improving systems and processes is the other critical part of the equation. Patients may feel like they are having an improved experience if their provider is friendly and offers an unreserved apology that their appointment was delayed, but they will have an even better experience if their appointment was not delayed in the first place. Providers need to look seriously at how they can change the systems and processes that give rise to the greatest patient dissatisfaction. For example, providers can use more accurate algorithms, which give better estimates of how long time slots need to be and how much time is required in between, to schedule appointments.
Take benchmarks from outside the industry
When it comes to performance benchmarks, the health care industry is notoriously insular. Health care organizations look at each other to benchmark their levels of customer service, but because such levels are low throughout the industry, the problem becomes self-reinforcing. Instead, health care providers need to look at the best examples from service-intensive industries, such as hospitality or financial services, and set their performance against these standards. After all, patients are not going to give up their consumer identities and excuse poor service simply because they’re in a different industry, and health care organizations must stop expecting them to do so.