7 Critical Factors that Impact Patient Experience
A long time ago, patients who saw a medical practitioner were running some real risks. Back when surgeries were performed with minimal sterilization, and practices like un-anesthetized amputations were the norm, patients were probably happy just to survive their visits. Thankfully, the healthcare field has come a long way from its gruesome and often medically dubious beginnings.
But despite our obvious advances in treatments and outcomes, the patient experience in many healthcare facilities still leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately for healthcare consumers, there’s been a substantial recent shift in priorities.
“Today—more than ever—the patient experience is paramount,” says Siobhan O'Grady, co-founder of Find a Top Doc. “Today patients want to have a choice, do their own research and be active participants in all aspects of their health.”
In this article, we will take a look at what’s driving this change as well as some of the critical—and potentially overlooked—factors that impact the patient experience.
Why does the patient experience matter?
So what gives? Why have healthcare providers suddenly put such an emphasis on improving patient experience? There are two primary factors—technology and government policy.
Technology and access to information has had an impact on healthcare providers. Patients have more options than ever before, and if they dislike their experience, they may leave and find a new clinic, hospital or other provider—or worse yet for providers, let everyone on the internet know about their lousy experience.
The other, much more direct factor is government policy. One of the many changes to the healthcare industry found in the Affordable Care Act was a plan that allows the Medicare program to financially incentivize providers who provide a better patient experience. As a result, more providers are taking notice.
“They are measuring patient experience and expecting continuous improvement by the staff and physicians,” says Mo Kasti CEO and founder of CTI Physician Leadership Institute. “The government and insurance companies are adding incentives and investing in patient experience.” This makes patient experience a critical subject for everyone in healthcare.
7 Key factors tied to a satisfactory patient experience
Most people would agree that the most important metric in patient experience is the success of their healthcare plan, surgery, procedure or treatment. The number one priority is unquestionably patient safety and improved health. But after that, there are lots of factors that impact a patient’s experience with a healthcare provider—and some of them might surprise you.
Read on to see some of the more unusual factors that impact patient experience and learn how you might be able to use your own role in healthcare to help.
1. Feeling understood
“Most patients perceive how their personal story was taken-in and how the provider responded in rating their experience,” says Chris Caulfield, RN and chief nursing officer of IntelyCare. Caulfield points out that a nonjudgmental and understanding response means the world to patients.
It makes sense when you think about it, but this factor is still often overlooked when addressing patient experience, and it can be difficult to evaluate. Healthcare professionals—from the medical administrative assistant who sets the appointment to the lab tech who draws blood—communicate a great deal by their body language in addition to their words. When patients feel vulnerable, they might perceive judgment or indifference to their situation from a healthcare employee, even if it is unintentional, or just a matter of the employee having a bad day.
“Beyond the obvious factors in patient experience such as bedside manner and prescribing efficacious treatments—today’s patients are all about convenience,” O’Grady says. This can relate to accessibility—how difficult it is to set up and get to an appointment if you have barriers like long distances or language differences.
But it also relates to patients who just have busy lives and want to set appointments without waiting on hold for a long time. For many, the internet is hard to beat. “Being able to communicate electronically, schedule your appointments online and manage your records are great ways of keeping patients informed and happy,” O’Grady says.
3. Integrative health services
Healthcare doesn’t happen in a vacuum—or at least in terms of patient experience, it shouldn’t. David Dachinger, co-founder of Loving Meditations, realized how much time patients in treatment for cancer spend sitting and waiting. “The patient who is receiving a chemotherapy infusion typically spends hours at a time connected to IVs and in some degree of physical discomfort and mental fog,” Dachinger says.
Scheduling-wise, hours of uncomfortable, anxious sitting while awaiting treatment might not always be avoidable—but a holistic approach to treatment can provide some relief. Dachinger’s organization focuses on providing materials and outlets that help cancer patients with the mental struggles that come with the situation.
“By including mindful wellness and meditation for these patients, research has shown improvements in mood and general well-being. For survivors—many of whom have follow-up healthcare—meditation improves their experience by reducing their fear of the disease coming back,” Dachinger says.
Of course, meditation and mindfulness exercises aren’t the only approach, but the principle guiding it remains the same: Help patients feel better both mentally and physically.
4. The clinical atmosphere
Healthcare can be very stressful for patients on the basis of their health situation alone. If the clinical atmosphere adds to that—patient experience suffers.
“We became aware that patient stress and overall experience can be negatively affected in the waiting room,” Dachinger says. “Studies have reported that waiting for the doctor is the most stressful part of the visit.”
Oncologists told Dachinger that they wished their patients could arrive calmer to make their communication and treatment easier. Turning off jarring television, or adding elements like mindful breathing guides or relaxing music could make a big difference. “If the patient can de-stress during their waiting, their calmer state helps them to be more receptive when receiving medical information and instructions.”
5. Wait times
This touches back on the convenience factor—unexpected wait times. “For example, when my doctors assign me an appointment at 9 a.m., why is it that I don’t see them until 10 a.m.?” Kasti asks. “In this case, why even set an appointment?”
While patients may be understanding of extenuating circumstances on occasion, a regular lack of punctuality communicates disrespect and ambivalence. No one wants their time to be wasted. “There is a lack of delivering commitment,” Kasti says. “The inefficiency in healthcare is a major factor impacting patient experience.”
Ambiguity in healthcare always feels frustrating. And it’s all too common for many patients. When a patient doesn’t know what a healthcare professional is doing or about to do, or what their visits and procedures will cost, or why they have a certain plan of care and what their other options are—it’s hardly a good experience. Kelsey Zamoyski, owner of Defy Therapy & Wellness, says a lack of transparency about cost is particularly high on many patients’ “bad experience” lists.
Oftentimes, due to the complexity of insurance or liability issues, providers are limited in what they can and can’t say. But even being honest about that with each patient, and acknowledging how frustrating it is can go a long way to establish trust.
7. Relational follow-through
People generally don’t see themselves as numbers in a system—when they feel like healthcare professionals treat them that way, the experience turns negative. Zamoyski says to listen to patients, as even seemingly simple things, like staff being sure to make eye contact with patients as they interact, can help make a difference in her experience.
Even the kindness and tone of voice people hear when they call the medical secretary to set an appointment makes a big difference, Zamoyski points out. There’s probably no way a medical secretary could remember every patient and develop a relationship, but if those front office professionals are good at communicating empathy or making people feel seen, then patients have a better experience.
For professionals who might interact with certain patients more regularly, Zamoyski says personal interactions like remembering their patients’ life events or taking the time to just chat for a minute can go a long way. This kind of personal follow-through helps patients, particularly for those who visit regularly, feel at home.
The “you” factor
As you can see, the most common denominator in patient experience is interaction with great healthcare professionals. “Truly great healthcare providers care about what they are doing,” Zamoyski explains. “We went into this career because we care about people, and we want them to feel better.”
In the end, when patients have a better experience with kind, empathetic professionals who know how to communicate, they have an easier road to health and healing. “I wish people understood that patient experience is part of delivering quality, compassionate care and not in addition to it.” Kasti says. “Patient experience should not be an either/or choice.”
For this reason, the healthcare industry is always looking for professionals who keep patient's needs close to heart. If you have a passion for driving large-scale improvements to patient experience while keeping an eye on the bottom line, you may be a great fit for a leadership position in healthcare administration. Good intentions and a strong handle on healthcare operations are a nice start, but you may want to beef up your educational background before you begin applying for leadership roles. Visit Rasmussen College's Healthcare Administration Master's degree page to learn more about how this program will help prepare you to lead.