Top Challenges in Improving the Patient Experience

Delivering exceptional patient experiences is a difficult task. Clinicians face an ever-growing list of responsibilities, and patient expectations are constantly evolving.

Optimizing the patient experience has clear benefits. To achieve these benefits, healthcare organizations must overcome several key challenges.

Patient Experience Impacts Clinical Outcomes--and Profitability

Positive patient experiences are demonstrably the most important factor in assessing quality of care. It’s even been shown to be a predictor of survival rates.

Indeed, patient experience plays such a critical role in quality healthcare that the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has incorporated the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) into numerous Medicare initiatives.

But healthcare providers have an additional incentive to improve the patient experience: profitability. The results of a retrogressive analysis conducted by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions thoroughly illustrated the connection between patient experience and higher profits:

  • Hospitals that delivered excellent patient experiences had a net margin of 4.7%, as opposed to just 1.8% for those with lower ratings.
  • Patient experience is highly correlated with financial performance, even when controlling for other factors.
  • While investments in patient experience increase costs, they also appear to increase revenue even more.
  • Hospitals with higher engagement rankings also had higher nurse FTE ratios, higher staff salaries, and better benefits.

Improving Patient Experience Requires Overcoming System-Wide Challenges

The case for prioritizing the patient experience is clear. It’s no wonder that 90% of patient access leaders named patient experience as their top priority for 2021. And 52% of CIOs said that patient engagement technology would be a major concern this year.

But actually improving the patient experience is hardly a straightforward endeavor. Healthcare organizations face multiple challenges in optimizing the patient experience.

The Organization Has to Be “All In”

One key challenge is that the whole organization has to make patient experience a top priority. The healthcare sector is not nearly “customer focused” as other industries are, so this represents a fundamental paradigm shift.

Such a dramatic shift usually requires a mandate from top leaders. This might be a difficult proposition, given that investing in patient experience represents a long-term initiative that might not have immediate results.

The most successful organizations demonstrate a firm commitment to patient experience, from the very top of the organization. Cleveland Clinic has even brought patient experience to the C-suite, with a chief experience officer whose role is to champion patients’ experiences throughout their healthcare journey.

Digital Transformation Is Difficult

Technology has dramatically transformed the way that we do just about everything, from shopping and eating, to banking, dating, and traveling. Consumers today are accustomed to relying on technology to make their everyday lives easier.

But such a transformation has yet to take place in healthcare. According to a McKinsey study, even Electronic Medical Records (EMR) are still not part of routine care; adoption of EMR in Europe is about 3%. In the US it’s approximately 35% (and that’s even with financial incentives from the government).

This failure to go digital has direct implications for patient experience. Patient expectations are rising because of the seamless experiences they get from other companies. This is particularly true among millennials, who came of age in the Amazon era. Meanwhile, most healthcare providers aren’t routinely using technology to improve the patient experience, or they’re doing it in only a very limited way.

To bridge this emerging chasm between expectation and experience, some healthcare providers have started thinking more creatively about technology. A technology need not be “patient-facing” to improve the patient experience. For example, an app that allows doctors to easily share and view patients’ radiology scans means that doctors can collaborate more easily on shared patient cases. It also means that patients don’t have to carry around CDs from appointment to appointment.

There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Patient Journey

Every patient is certainly different, with unique perspectives, needs, and preconceptions. That said, patients who suffer from the same health conditions (e.g.,diabetes or heart disease) tend to have similar patient journeys, or at least the “twists and turns” in their journeys can be predicted and mapped. This makes it easier to identify opportunities to improve their journeys and experiences.

But what about patients with less common conditions? Their journeys are not so linear. On the contrary, these patients are likely to experience great uncertainty and lack effective treatment options. Their patient journeys are fraught with dead ends.

These patients often struggle to find doctors with the necessary expertise, and geography is a significant limiting factor. The European Reference Networks (ERN) offer a model for addressing this problem. These virtual networks connect healthcare providers across Europe, facilitating knowledge exchange on complex and rare diseases. Essentially the knowledge travels, so patients don’t have to.

Such a model could be implemented more informally, perhaps via an app or other technology, to help doctors connect with colleagues, and even to help patients connect with specialists regardless of physical location.

The Patient Experience Is a Family Affair

Seasoned healthcare providers will tell you that patients don’t often attend appointments and procedures alone. Family members often play a critical role in a patient’s ongoing care and treatment, so they’re hardly casual observers. Patients pay attention to how their family members are treated. Does the doctor make sure they understand everything? Did the surgeon update the family during pre-op and after surgery? All of these factors figure into the patient’s experience.

Handling these interactions with family members can be a delicate business. Family members might talk over the patient or ask a litany of questions. They might bring their own expectations and opinions regarding the patient’s treatment. Without a clear strategy for interacting with family members, healthcare providers can easily alienate patients.

Dedicated family engagement leaders can take on the job of educating family members on how to care for their loved ones. That extra care and attention can go a long way to improving the patient experience.

The Industry Is Still Stuck on Satisfaction

The concept of patient satisfaction is anything but new. In fact, it’s rather outdated. Attempts at measuring patient satisfaction (usually surveys) invariably focus on one specific interaction with the healthcare system, such as a single appointment. This approach provides an extremely limited view of a patient’s experience. It’s simply not holistic enough.

The patient experience includes the entire journey, often starting before the patient even seeks care. Every interaction and touchpoint colors the patient experience: visits to the website, interactions with the receptionist, how long it takes to get an appointment, and how the doctor follows up after treatment.

The sum of all those touchpoints can obviously be difficult to measure, which is why the best patient-experience programs use innovative techniques to solicit patient feedback at many points along the journey. Aurora Health Care uses digital channels to gather ongoing patient feedback, which is then shared throughout the organization to shape patient experience-related decisions.

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