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Patient experience: 4 strategies of the new healthcare reality

November 3rd, 2011

by Jason A. Wolf

I have heard some suggest that patient experience is just the latest buzzword to enter the vernacular of healthcare leaders. Yet, research conducted over the last few years, including The Beryl Institute's benchmarking study, The State of Patient Experience in American Hospitals continues to show that patient experience is a top priority for healthcare leaders. What has raised the profile of patient experience?

The most common response is that the increased attention is due to its linkage to the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Hospital Providers & Systems (HCAHPS) scores, value-based purchasing, and reimbursement implications. As one CEO recently shared with me, the real dollar impact does have executives thinking twice about the patient experience.

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Yet, what I have found in my encounters with healthcare leaders is that while patient experience may be seen by some as a fad based on recent policy (i.e., a must do for now until the environment shifts), it is gaining greater traction as leaders now have the air cover needed to address patient experience as the right thing to do in a way they may not have been able to before.

So what is working to help those committed to addressing patient experience as a new healthcare reality? I offer four observations that I see emerging in support of stronger patient experience performance overall.

  1. A clear organizational definition for patient experience. The Institute's benchmarking study discovered that while almost 70 percent of hospitals have a formal structure for addressing patient experience, only 27 percent have a formal definition. We would not pursue new service line strategies without a clear purpose, so what makes patient experience any different? Organizations should consider adopting or adapting the Institute's definition of patient experience--the sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization's culture that impact patient perceptions across the continuum of care.
  2. A focused role to support patient experience efforts. In our recent paper, The Four Cornerstones of an Effective Patient Experience, the conventional wisdom that focus leads to outcomes was reinforced as those facilities with a focused role and defined time committed to patient experience efforts tended to outperform on HCAHPS scores by significant margins.
  3. A recognition that patient experience is more than just a survey. My visits to hospitals across the United States have shown me that the greatest outcomes are realized by those facilities that address the actual experience versus just the required survey questions. At Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Virginia, by building a foundation of service culture and sharing a broad vision of the patient experience journey, it helps patients feel they are individuals to be cared for versus cases to be managed. The result, a consistent likelihood to recommend score of greater than 80 percent over the last few years.
  4. A commitment at the highest levels of leadership. It may seem cliché to say it starts at the top, but the benchmarking study revealed that the top driver of patient experience success, recognized by more than 72 percent of respondents, was strong, visible support from the top. This is reinforced by Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of UCLA Health System, who shares that his leadership team takes the time to walk the floors daily, engaging staff, patients, and family as part of its overall commitment to healing humankind, one patient at a time.

These ideas provide a framework for successful efforts taking place throughout healthcare organizations today; but it takes more than checking off a list of four actions to achieve success. Patient experience performance, and yes, survey outcomes and financial rewards, are all tied to a healthcare organization's willingness to make patient experience more than just an initiative. This is our new reality: Patient experience as a part of our healthcare environment is here to stay.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D., is executive director of The Beryl Institute, the global community of practice and premier thoughtleader on improving the patient experience. He is a passionate champion and recognized expert on organizational effectiveness, service excellence, and high performance in healthcare.

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