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The consumer has spoken: Patient experience matters

May 28th, 2015

by Jason A. Wolf

I remain resolute in my position that patient experience is about much more than surveys or what they encompass--especially the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) measurements in the U.S. or surveys we see emerging in countries around the world. While no survey is or will ever be perfect, I also believe they can and do serve a critical purpose. They raise awareness, garner attention, and, on occasion, cause a shift in focus and action for the better.

This is what I see happening as a result of the focus on value emerging in healthcare, much driven by the emergence of standardized and public measures and a commitment to creating value-focused interactions. It also helps that there are real dollars now associated with the performance measured by these surveys.

In the U.S., prior to the emergence of the CAHPS surveys, healthcare primarily operated as a transactional business driven by the ability to drive volume. Quantity ruled as the financial driver and, as a result, reinforced a system in which bodies trumped the people they represented and diagnoses overshadowed names or personal stories. This is not to criticize those who committed their lives and careers to taking care of others in healthcare, but rather to recognize the system was rigged in a way to dampen that very spirit and purpose.

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The value conversation is forcing that systemic mindset and the underlying culture of healthcare to change. The challenge is decades in the making and rooted in a focus on transactions. We are moving into a world that must now be cognizant that what matters most is the value of interactions. It is at the level of interaction, of one human being to another, where the best in quality, safety and service can be provided--that is the patient experience.

Yet even with this shift in focus, actions are often still driven by policy and mandate, influenced by a reimbursement system that the typical healthcare consumer is not even aware exists. And while these changes did cause shifts in behaviors organizationally, they garnered minimal public attention. Yet the improvements made in CAHPS scores in recent years are observable; the surveys have moved us in their own limited way to a stronger focus on interaction. This is only managed through the people and organizations engaged in our healthcare systems themselves.

I continue to hear healthcare leader, provider and caregiver alike reinforce that the culture of an organization matters in patient experience excellence. Perhaps we are experiencing a cultural renaissance in healthcare itself. Our most recent global research at The Beryl Institute on the state of patient experience reinforced the notion that culture was a major factor in experience success. It is why it was placed and remains at the heart of the definition of patient experience itself.

But why does any of this matter and what should cause us to look and listen as healthcare leaders? The reality now is that consumers are more aware than ever of their role in the healthcare conversation. Along with incredible patient advocates and leaders that continue to raise important issues for healthcare end-users (a great example being the critical effort to reinforce the importance of patient and family access to their own health information), the market in general is listening and acting.

In just the five years since launching The Beryl Institute, we have seen a meteoric increase in identified research focused on patient experience, from tens to hundreds of efforts annually. There has been an unquestionable emergence of new resources, vendors, products and services, and even efforts to grow major patient-experience-focused corporate entities. And perhaps most significantly, there has been a rapid rise of patient experience being addressed in the public media.

Just last month, when the reported CAHPS data evolved beyond listed percentages and data tables to user-friendly star ratings, the press was stirred. There was, and continues to be, coverage in national, regional and local press about how many stars healthcare organizations have received. And while some may and do debate the merit of this reporting methodology, it has become a tangible means by which the healthcare consumer is now informed. Patient experience, at least in the sense of this "new" presentation of the data, has become newsworthy and without question a more public resource than ever before.

We closed our 2015 State of Patient Experience study with a simple pair of questions for healthcare consumers globally. To the first, 87 percent of respondents identified patient experience as extremely important to them. To the second, 67 percent said patient experience would be extremely significant (with 28 percent saying somewhat significant) in making healthcare decisions. When we link this data reality from the voice of patients and families to the expanding coverage of experience information in the news, we can only draw one conclusion--patient experience matters. It always has, but with the raised awareness, increased coverage and broadened focus, it may have never been more important than today.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D., is president of The Beryl Institute, a global community of practice focused on patient experience improvement and founding editor of Patient Experience Journal. Follow Jason @jasonawolf, The Beryl Institute @berylinstitute and Patient Experience Journal @pxjournal on Twitter.

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