Patient experience is not to be confused with patient happiness

I hear providers groan when we talk about the patient experience and some even tell me that they have no impact on the patient experience, that’s an administration problem. Nothing is further from the truth. If you interact with patients, you influence the patient experience.

Some providers think a full waiting room is a measure of patient satisfaction. Actually, it’s a measure of how long patients will tolerate a long waiting process before they go elsewhere. These days the patient impatience is growing short and they will go elsewhere.

Patient experience is not to be confused with patient happiness. We are not Disney World: We are a health care delivery system. Everything we do will not make people happy, but they still can be satisfied and can have a good experience with their health care. The customer is always right isn’t even followed in the business world anymore and we in health care shouldn’t have that attitude either.

We need to deliver the best care for the patient. That is a core piece of what we do. Sometimes that is getting patients out of bed when they hurt. It probably won’t make them happy, but it’s necessary for getting the patient on the road to recovery. Sometimes we have to deliver bad news. It won’t make the patient happy, but how we deliver the news has a huge impact on their experience.

Imagine a doctor walking in the room, telling the patient they have cancer and walking out (this has happened in our system.) Now imagine a doctor walking in the room, sitting down, and telling the patient they have cancer and staying to listen and deal with the emotions (this also happens in our system everyday). The experience of the patient is very different. Are they happy? Probably not. Which had the better experience?

The patient experience starts with delivering safe care — no patient injured by medical care has had a good experience. Safety is priority number one. The next level of patient experience is high quality care — harder to define, but critical to delivering the best experience to the patient. As the mission statement says, we are here to improve the health of every patient, every day. Quality is critical to improving the patient’s health.

Finally, we have to focus on how we deliver the care. Patients are looking for caring, competence and professionalism in their health care provider. That is the provider’s responsibility in improving the patient experience. The administration’s duty is to get the frustration out of the process — get the phones answered quickly, smooth the registration process, etc.

Why is this important? You could say it’s a business issue — patients are more willing than ever to go elsewhere for their care if they don’t have a good experience. We won’t be in the health care business if we don’t pay attention to the patient experience.

More important, these are our friends and neighbors. It’s the right thing to do.

David Tilstra is president, CentraCare Clinic and a member, board of directors, CentraCare Health. This article originally appeared on the blog of Christopher Johnson, MD.

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