Patient satisfaction in the age of social media

The patient satisfaction industry needs to be disrupted.

This old, legacy industry, with it’s outdated and overpriced technology needs a serious makeover. I work for a large physician group that uses a well-established patient satisfaction vendor. And I have had no end of frustration trying to figure out how the data I get back can be used to actually improve my practice and the overall patient experience.

Don’t get me wrong; I think surveying our patients is incredibly important and worthwhile. But why is it done in such an arcane and non-engaging way. Seriously, have you every gotten one of these things in the mail? It is 2012 and we have paper surveys sent weeks after a visit each one costing more than a couple gallons of gas.

No wonder the response rates are so dismally low. I just don’t see how this can be justified any longer. With the rise of the Internet and social media, we now have at our disposal the most amazing communication tools ever created; yet we are still thinking of patient satisfaction like it is 1980. In my mind, the whole concept of patient satisfaction is about having a conversation with our patients to determine what they think we are doing well and what they think we need to improve upon. It is about having that conversation in a meaningful and transparent way that makes our patients believe we are actually listening to them.

It isn’t about some number that needs to be benchmarked and then branded on us like a scarlet letter. So why aren’t we having this conversation with the tools of communication that we use in every other aspect of our life and work? Why don’t we integrate email, cloud computing, social media, mobile technology and modern data analytics into these surveys? And why don’t we link them to our EMR’s and our practice web pages and truly integrate them into our practices? These things are all possible with technology that is already almost a decade old!

I believe we can do better. I believe we can make patient satisfaction something truly useful and engaging for patients and physicians. We need to get the administrators and the third party legacy vendors out of the equation and get back to what this should have been about all along: A good, old-fashioned conversation with our patients.

Steven Bates is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and co-founder of DocsVox.

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  • Donald Tex Bryant

    I agree that the rate of feedback of mailed paper surveys is dismal. The surveys that you do get are likely to be from either patients who are disgruntled with your service or who are very happy. The average patient just doesn’t usually respond to surveys. After all, most are already asked by many other retailers to do the same.

    I believe that a well organized focus group of patients can help a great deal in improving patient satisfaction. Using a staff member who is a good communicator or an outside consultant to run such a focus group will likely yield important results.

  • Dike Drummond MD

    Thanks for this post Dr. Bates. The concept of a “well established patient satisfaction vendor” makes me smile. Your organization chose them and now you are publicly showing the world the major reason you would fire them. It’s a good one too. Are you standing up in your leadership meetings and saying these same things? Is anyone listening?

    Sounds to me like you are being called to step up as a leader in your organization for this important topic. I encourage you not to stop at this blog post.

    Of course paper surveys are a waste of money. And here is what any doctor can do to create the instant and meaningful feedback loop you are looking for.

    If you had a meaningful visit with a patient. Ask them how their experience was. If they liked it too, give them a little note with your facebook page URL on it and ask them to leave a comment. Loop created and I bet that 20% of them will leave that comment for you.

    I understand this tactic is accentuating the positive … and it does not seek out suggestions for improvement. It is just one component of a comprehensive strategy that could be web based and instantaneous and easily designed using off the shelf free technology in a matter of hours. All that is missing is leadership.

    My two cents,

    Dike Drummond MD

  • David Voran, MD

    I recently had a similar conversation with our Press Ganey vendor who asked why my organization wasn’t going with their digital survey product. He was able to show me that the response rate nearly doubled with much more timely and discriminating results. Instead of maybe 10-20 survey responses per provider the digital product produced over a hundred. The bottom line is that while the per-response cost is less the total cost is much higher and, according to him, my organization declined in order to save money.

    Bottom line is I think we get what we pay for.

    On the other hand, one thing we could do as physicians is to always put ourselves in the place of the patient in front of us and take a little more time with each one of them. Yes, we’ll lose money and productivity if we do this but we’ll feel better and so will our patients. Some day we’ll get paid for doing this but sadly that day isn’t today.


    I think your points are well made, Dr Bates.

    We’re over in the UK but experienced similar frustrations with the way in which patient experience/satisfaction systems are designed and operated – but, due to the way our healthcare system is funded, with even more emphasis on cost.

    As a result, we decided to take things into our own hands and developed a new approach to gathering patient feedback. In the course of developing our approach, we found that traditional system vendors had overlooked several important factors:

    1) That there’s a need to balance the time needed for patients to reflect on their experiences against the timeliness of collecting data;
    2) The need for patients to be engaged *right from the start* of the feedback process;
    3) The need for patients to *want* to give feedback – when you lift the hood on this, you quickly discover that few expect things to change or actually believe that their healthcare provider wants their feedback (which gives you immediate communications/branding/perception barriers to overcome);
    4) The ways in which patients today use technology – we have “silver surfers” choosing to give responses online/via iPhones etc *even if* they have paper based surveys sat in front of them; and lastly
    5) That, to drive improvement, you need to make sense of not only satisfaction, but also experiences and outcomes – the three, as we all know, not necessarily being the same.

    …and that’s before you even consider the characteristics of the business models you talk about. But, to be fair to those established in the age of paper based surveying, not all will have the capacity or capability to radically change their models.

    Get it right though and you *can* get responses, in volume, and from the usually silent majority: and better still, see all of this as management information rather than raw data.

    So take heart, the revolution has started in the UK… and we may yet make it across the Atlantic.

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