Culture & Leadership | Global Perspective

Why Is Improving Patient Experiences So Difficult?

Health systems make significant investments in time, money and resources to improve patient experiences. While some organizations have been able to move the needle, the national HCAHPS Overall Rating has not improved since 2016.

As patients become healthcare consumers, they choose where to go for care. To remain financially viable, health systems must attract and retain these consumers by delivering “great medical care and a terrific consumer experience.”1

US health systems are capable of delivering great medical care. Why then is it so difficult to deliver a terrific consumer experience? 

Traditionally, patient experience has been defined by survey question ratings. But patient experiences are complex. To improve their experiences, you must first understand what patients are experiencing. For example,

  • What do your patients appreciate about their care? 
  • What frustrates them?
  • What causes them to go elsewhere?

Consider this. Each patient is unique. 

  • One patient may be battling late-stage cancer. 
  • Another may arrive at the Emergency Department with a possible concussion. 
  • Or what about the mother in Urgent Care worried about her child who has suddenly spiked a high fever?

Variables that affect patient experiences

A host of variables influence their perception of these encounters. Their past experiences at the health system. Language barriers. Wait time. Expectations when entering the exam room. Listening skills of the provider. How quickly their problem is diagnosed and treated. Their understanding of follow-up care upon discharge. The list goes on.

One simple strategy captures patient experiences

One simple strategy opens doors for healthcare decision-makers. It gives providers the opportunity to show patients and their families that they matter. It informs solutions that transform the bottom line. It reduces the number of patients switching to other health systems. 

What is the solution? Just ask patients to tell their story.

An invitation and a question. Unlimited value.

  1. Tell us about your recent experience.
  2. How would you rate your experience? 

Asking patients to tell their story and following-up with a rating question allows patients to tell you everything you need to know to improve their experiences. The collective wisdom of your patients identifies improvement priorities – what is negatively impacting their experiences and the ratings of your health system. Next generation AI technology converts their stories into action-packed priorities with ease and within budget. 

Survey ratings are not sufficient 

Surveys perform a valuable role in benchmarking health systems. But survey questions and their numerical ratings fail to adequately describe the experiences of your patients. 

When a patient decides to complete a survey, they assign ratings to each question. What is lost however, is the patient’s top-of-mind feedback, both positive and negative, on what mattered most during their recent encounter. This feedback is the insight frontline managers need to fix the problems that are dragging down ratings and patient experiences. 

Unfortunately, adding more questions to a survey won’t solve this problem. Response rates are already declining. What works? Asking patients to tell their stories.

Three lessons learned from decades of building consumer loyalty:

  • Fix the issues that matter most to your patients. The volume of patient comments on a particular topic is not a reliable indicator of critical improvement priorities. For example, a client of PatientsVoices instituted a ‘one visitor’ policy when COVID devasted their community. The policy frustrated many families and generated many complaints but had little to no impact on the hospital’s overall rating. 

  • Be prepared. What matters to patients will surprise you. Our clients tell us that patient comment themes are not surprising. What surprises them is the types of experiences that matter most to patients. For example, complaints about the quality of clinical care (e.g., not receiving a proper diagnosis) had a significant negative impact on a client’s ratings. Ironically, the health system believed that clinical care was their competitive advantage.

  • Share patient feedback, both positive and negative. Most importantly, share feedback with the clinicians who are involved in fixing a problem. Seeing what patients say about their experiences, both positive and negative, melts resistance and motivates practitioners to be part of the solution.

1 Harvard Business Review, John Glaser, Nov 2021

About the Author:

Mary Kay O’Connor is the CEO of PatientVoices®, a company she founded to make it easier for health systems to improve patient experience. Early in her career, Mary Kay recognized the problems in healthcare: sparse, incomplete patient feedback, long surveys and dated text analysis tools. Today, the company’s solution asks patients to tell their stories. Patients’ real-time feedback is captured and analyzed by next generation AI technology, and their stories are converted into ready-for-action analytics and ROI predictions. 


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