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Considering the totality of patient experience

February 19th, 2014

by Jason A. Wolf

The concept of patient experience is not the latest healthcare fad. It encompasses and directly influences the scope of public policy globally. It can be found at the foundation of clinical protocol, and it remains, as acknowledged in various research studies, a top priority in healthcare.

This may challenge the face some wish to put on patient experience, which is it is solely about customer service or simply satisfaction. That view comes from a healthcare world grounded in the ideas of segmentation and process control. The separation of expertise or role is not, in and of itself, a problem. It becomes an issue when it gets in the way of our central focus to provide the best outcomes for patients.

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While our systems have been slow to change, the consumer world in which healthcare exists has dynamically accelerated. The consumers of healthcare--patients, families and communities--once were passive participants. Today, they are active advocates for themselves or their loved ones. This does not mean they dismiss healthcare's infrastructure of expertise, but rather they demand to be seen as active partners in the healthcare process with the capacity and ability to make significant choices.

With this, we must explore what we mean by patient experience. The definition of patient experience is the sum of all interactions ... across the continuum of care. The suggestion here is simple: Regardless of your role in healthcare today--from providing care to offering support services, in direct care settings or in operational roles--every individual, process or concept in the healthcare continuum plays a role in the experience of patients and families.

The definition also suggests critical concepts--such as patient- and family-centered care; quality and safety efforts like "never events" (and now "always events"); and even scheduling, discharge and revenue cycle processes--all are part of the experiences of patients and families. This, too, does not diminish any of these key aspects of care, but instead strengthens our ability to see them as integral and integrated parts of a more powerful whole.

To recognize the totality of patient experience, I offer the following ideas:

1. Value distinction, with a caveat. Celebrate the valued distinctions of our roles and ideas, but acknowledge our patients have but one experience in our care. We must continue to find opportunities to think systemically and provide solutions with a team-focused perspective.

2. Design, build and rewire for agility. With the speed of change in healthcare today, deep-rooted distinctions make rapid reconfiguration difficult at best. We must structure our organizations to respond to or even proactively address the global changes impacting healthcare.

3. Unearth the passion that brought many to healthcare. If experience originates from the culture organizations that deliver it, we must strengthen that foundation by reconnecting people to why they chose healthcare in the first place. All too often I hear healthcare workers say the systems and processes have blanketed their passion. While these are necessary evils of organizational life, they need not impede the true purpose of our work.

4. Recognize we all play a role in the patient experience. This is no longer someone else's responsibility. While organizations need a senior leader to guide experience efforts, we must ensure every individual understands they have a choice at any moment to affect the experience of a patient or family member and experience occurs regardless of whether they choose their actions.

Let's challenge our conventional wisdom in healthcare and our need for distinction for distinction's sake. We have significant opportunities to learn from and act upon our collective wisdom. It is time to consider the totality of patient experience.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D., is president 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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