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Patient experience: The power of perception

September 25th, 2012

by Jason A. Wolf

Perceptions may be your greatest ally or challenging foe in telling your organization's patient experience story. The patient experience is most often explored through the lens of the actions being taken, such as strategies an organization has in place or tactics being implemented.

This focus reinforces the idea that the patient experience is something provided TO a patient and their family. It is critical that we recognize patient experience is something much greater than just these actions.

Patient experience should be first and foremost about the experience itself. Those in healthcare do not necessarily provide an experience. Rather, we create the circumstances, reinforce the behaviors, and manage the interactions that allow a patient and family to have an experience grounded in their own viewpoint.

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This realignment from the perspective of "ours" to "theirs" that I raised in my blog post earlier this year is a simple, yet fundamental shift that must be made to support a full and committed patient experience effort. In defining patient experience, a crucial realization is that all actions taken by an organization ultimately influence patient perception.

Perceptions are the basis of understanding by patients, their families and/or support networks. They also are the foundation of all recollection and at the core of all that will be shared with others. Experience as defined is quite simply, and powerfully, all that is perceived, understood and (perhaps most importantly for healthcare organizations) remembered.

Because perceptions will vary based on individual characteristics such as beliefs, values, cultural background, one cannot guarantee the "same" experience for anyone. You can only create the circumstances in which you are aware the actions taken in every healthcare interaction will result in a (hopefully positive) perception. Experience efforts, strong organizational cultures and focus at all points on the care continuum will influence an individual's perception. Therefore, the patient perspective must be consistently understood and continuously engaged.

There may be no area of greater significance to patients' perception in healthcare than the vulnerability they feel. It is wired into our very nature as human beings. Our levels of perception are raised when we find ourselves in a vulnerable situation. As I personally experienced in a recent emergency situation, our senses are heightened, our mind races, our blood pressure increases and we are extraordinarily aware of what is happening around us. These moments ingrain themselves in our memory. (In fact, I recently conducted a brief experiment with colleagues and found people more easily recalled their last medical encounter than their most recent birthday.)

So where do healthcare leaders have an opportunity in to impact perception? First, recognize the individuality of each patient. Second, build systems to address this through the culture you create and the behaviors of people who engage with patients rather than only planning and implementing replicable processes or tactics you think will affect experience.

Healthcare organizations all too often focus on delivering experience from the caregiver viewpoint versus the patient perspective. As a result, patients are often "reduced" to the tangibles--room numbers, diagnoses, or words on a chart even in the greatest efforts to provide a positive experience. The challenge remains to create opportunities for individuality to emerge in an environment that pushes for commonality and consistency.

Henry David Thoreau once said, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see." We can spend all of our efforts building what it is we want our patients to look at, but in the end we may miss the point. We should consider experience the opportunity to support patients and families in what THEY see.

This is what will ultimately support positive perceptions and where we can have the greatest influence in providing an unparalleled patient experience for each individual in our care.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D., is executive director of The Beryl Institute, where he specializes in organizational effectiveness, service excellence and high performance in healthcare. Follow Jason @jasonawolf and The Beryl Institute @berylinstitute on Twitter.

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