Hospital medicine doctors are key to improving patient satisfaction

Improving patient satisfaction and enhancing the hospital experience is all the buzz today in health care. Every hospital executive across the country is talking about it, and coming to terms with how their organization’s reimbursements will be directly tied to their performance in this area.

A decade ago, none of us had ever heard of HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) scores, the core metric by which health care facilities are now being evaluated. And while improving patient satisfaction scores is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach from all levels of the organization, one thing is certain: As the most visible frontline clinicians during any medical patient’s hospitalization, hospital medicine doctors are key to driving this improvement. They are the face of the hospitalization, act as the main point of contact for the patient, and are the doctors who will be most involved in their care. The old model of the hospitalist being present “to just round” on patients in place of their regular PCP is long outdated. It’s therefore crucial to recognize their role in improving the hospital experience. Here are some everyday ways hospitalists can do this:

  • Making clear to the patient from the beginning the role of the hospitalist, their relationship with the patient’s PCP, and how they will be in charge of the patient’s complete care as part of a collaborative care team. This helps to reassure an often anxious elderly patient and their family.
  • Regular use of aids such as explanatory introductory cards, pamphlets and business cards. Leave them on the table in the room so that family members can also see them and know the doctor who’s in charge of the care.
  • Making a clear plan for the patient every day. Utilize whiteboards in the patient’s room and keep them updated.
  • Developing more optimal patient rounds, including multidisciplinary rounding models to ensure that all members of the health care team are on the same page.
  • Setting aside dedicated time for extended patient and family meetings each day, usually in the afternoons.
  • Making clear that you are regularly communicating with the specialists who are also involved in the patient’s care.
  • Developing and maintaining good communication skills, always displaying empathy and compassion.

Statistics show that two of the most frequently cited patient complaints are a lack of time with their doctors and health care staff exhibiting poor communication skills. On a practical level, in order to maximize time with patients, hospitalists obviously need a manageable daily patient census. Formal communication skills training is often well received by physicians, especially if feedback is given in a friendly and collegial atmosphere. It’s traditionally been an area that the health care profession hasn’t got into, and older physicians in particular are much less likely to have ever received any formal training or skills advice.

Worried about pushback if you bring up the concept? Most physicians actually enjoy thinking about the topic, and are very keen to improve their skills. Ultimately, it’s all about making the patient feel comfortable, at ease, and listened to. Some proven communication techniques that physicians should utilize include making eye contact, sitting down, and asking open-ended questions. These are very basic, but often forgotten about during a typical hectic day. They can all be taught, improved upon, and coached.

Specialists also need to step up to the mark. They need to be encouraged to maximally collaborate with the hospital doctor and to make the patient feel like all their care is being coordinated. The other touches that go into improving a hospital stay, such as regular nursing checks, being clear on wait times, and following up post-discharge with a personal (non-automated!) message from a nurse or administrator, should all be added to the mix.

Let’s remember that this isn’t simply about saying that you’ve “improved patient satisfaction” and raising survey scores for the sake of reimbursements. Patient satisfaction is really about understanding what the patient is experiencing and the emotional roller coaster that goes with being sick. HCAHPS scores, while by no means the perfect survey, may be the jolt the medical profession needs to strive for what it should have been doing all along: providing patients with a high level of customer service at a low point in their lives.

Hospital medicine doctors are best placed to engage the patient from the beginning, and by focusing on the hospitalist group to lead the way, organizations can soar to new heights.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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