Patients Have a Soul

Customer Service
Customer Service
5 steps for improving today's healthcare customer experience in ways that benefit patients and healthcare providers

On the cover of its 2008 Annual Report, the Cleveland Clinic put this quote:

"The patient is not only an illness he has a soul."

Those simple 11 words have stuck with me ever since I read them. The medical field spends so much time and energy on addressing illnesses, that it sometimes forgets the broader needs of the individuals.

In a recent Temkin Group survey, we found that consumers are not enamored with their healthcare experiences. Only two thirds of patients are fully satisfied with their overall medical experience. So there is a lot of room for improvement.

We also examined the satisfaction by age and found that younger consumers are considerably less satisfied with the overall experience than are older consumers.

Making the case for improving patient experience

A patient experience can dramatically affect a patient's overall well being. There have even been research studies that show a connection between patient experience and clinical outcomes. So there are many great reasons to focus on, and improve, patient experience.

If that's not enough motivation, there are economic reasons for focusing on patient experience. An increasing number of patients are rating their experience with medical caregivers at health plan sites and third-party sites. As this data grows and gets more exposure, the medical profession-healthcare professionals and institutions-will be judged by the experiences they deliver.

Believe it or not, the government is also providing some motivation. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services though the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has created a public-private initiative, the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) program. This effort has developed a standardized survey of patients' experiences that provides a deep set of benchmark data. This effort will hopefully continue to push the medical field to care about patient experience.

5 steps for improving patient experience

As the healthcare industry gets onboard with patient experience, here are five steps that institutions can take to make improvements:

1. Make patient experience a top priority. As with any change initiative, improving customer experience will not work unless it becomes an institutional priority. The senior executive team needs to decide that improving patient experience is one of its top three goals. Once that understanding is in place, the executive group needs to embrace three characteristics of transformational leaders: Communicate "why," model the desired behaviors, and reinforce the change.

2. Map the patient experience. You can't fix the experience until you see it though the eyes of your patients. Patients are often shuffled between different organizations on their journey through the medical system. So many of the experience miscues happen in gaps across those organizations. That's why it's important to map the entire patient journey, from the initial desire to seek medical advice/treatment all the way through to the end of the treatment/advice.

3. Make the case to doctors. While you need to get all employees onboard, I often hear that doctors are not the easiest population to influence. But the entire healthcare system is changing and doctors will increasingly care about things beyond just diagnosis and treatment-especially younger doctors who are entering a different environment. The key to getting doctors to "care" is to relate patient experience to some of the things that they do care about. There's research that shows that better experience leads to better medical outcomes (they care about that) and it also leads to better word of mouth and utilization of facilities (which leads to more money to invest in research and medical equipment, which they also care about).

4. Embrace the voice of the patient. Efforts like CAHPS are getting medical providers to survey their patients about their experience. But surveying is only one small part of an overall voice of the patient (VoP) program. Medical organizations need to establish a closed-loop VoP program that builds a continuous flow of insights that drive patient-centric decisions and actions.

5. Create employee advocates. There's nothing more reinforcing for an organization than hearing about success. So applaud all of the good things that people in your organization are doing to improve the patient experience. If the people in your organization see that you are making progress, then they will become your strongest advocates-and the message about your dedication to patient experience will flow through them to your patients.

Closing thoughts

Patients are truly more than their illness. Hopefully, medical professionals will embrace the broader needs of their patients and embrace their souls. As Ray Charles once said: "What is soul? It's like electricity; we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room."