Now that we're moving toward a consumer-driven model of health care, the industry needs to start envisioning the patient experiences it provides the way retailers envision customer experiences.
That might seem like a naïve thought, given that the services health care providers offer patients can mean the difference between life and death. But consider this: there may be no one in more dire need of a rewarding service experience than a seriously ill or injured patient and his or her family and friends.
What constitutes a "rewarding" patient experience?
Part of that reassurance means developing a model of consistency — across an individual's visits and, indeed, as much as possible across all patient encounters, facility-wide. Important to keep in mind is that a brand is the sum total of a consumer’s experience with a product or service, not a logo or catchy tagline. Consistency and standardization is key.
We already know what can be accomplished — from the standpoint of patient safety — when we derive lessons from other industries: Some organizations' adoption of the airline industry's "pre-flight checklists" in the course of medical management has yielded tremendous gains in improving morbidity and mortality. Checklists provide a framework for consistency and institutional attention to detail.
But what about developing consistency from a service perspective? We could learn quite a bit from the successes of companies like Marriott and McDonald's — which built their respective brand empires by focusing on providing consistent services across outlets and across time.
Why shouldn't patients expect that their daily meals always be nutritious and appealing with consistent texture, taste and preparation? Why shouldn't patients' families expect that one nurse will treat them with the same consideration and kindness as the next during visiting hours?
Why shouldn't facilities within the same hospital system have consistent wayfinding signage and similar (branded) interior decor. And why shouldn't internal and external communications from one facility to the next (within a system) be composed and delivered using codified style guidelines and brand standards?
Patients and their loved ones should know what to expect from health care providers at every encounter. If we can reduce the inconsistencies that flavor, but ultimately don't determine, the course of treatment, we can free patients up to concentrate less on deciphering the idiosyncrasies of the facility and to concentrate more on developing a deeper understanding of their reasons for being in a provider’s care to begin with.
Another key to a rewarding patient experience is expectation setting.
The industry should be doing everything it can to make sure that every health care consumer passing through its doors develops an understanding of his or her treatment. Those points should include:
A working literacy of what he or she is being treated for, including medical terms and jargon he or she will likely encounter.
A full understanding of the risks and benefits of treatment.
A full understanding of the potential consequences of foregoing or incompletely complying with treatment.
At least a basic knowledge of the mechanism of treatment (how and why a medicine or procedure works).
A knowledge of who his or her providers are and a basic understanding of each provider's role.
A realistic set of expectations about the length of a treatment course, including desired milestones and goals.
Some providers are already trying to work along these lines, but results have been mixed. Many hospitals, for example, now include dry erase boards in every patient room, which are ideally to be updated at the start of every shift and used to communicate with patients and patients’ families.
But in a busy clinical environment, with incomplete staff buy-in, such boards are often not updated in the intended manner. To patients, communications boards often become representative of their providers' broken promises.
High-tech solutions aren't a definitive answer, but there is a place for them.
Health care providers can't hand a tablet to every patient coming in the door with instructions to use a patient portal app to get info and updates on their treatment courses and expect better patient experience outcomes automatically. Such solutions make no allowance for treating patients with varying levels of tech literacy, medical literacy, or even basic reading literacy.
Indeed, a recent study of tablet-based patient portal apps at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital determined, “patient portals did not have a great impact on patient medical knowledge.”
Although 76 percent of patients participating in the study reported that Chicago Northwestern Memorial's portal app was easy to use, only 57 percent reported using it more than once per day during their stay. 20 percent reported never using the patient portal app at all.
Neither group was better able to articulate any deeper understanding of their course of care. This suggests that patient education — and thus the patient experience — cannot be entirely self-service.
That said, users of the portal app were significantly better able to name and describe the role of their providers, compared to non-users. That's no small feat. And it suggests that portal apps may have a critical role to play in the overall patient experience.
Something we've been saying for quite some time now: The patient population cannot be treated as a homogenous block. Psychographic differentiators in play across the health care consumer population require us to develop multi-vector solutions for improving both care and patient experience. It also means that health care providers must leverage consumer insights to more effectively engage and activate patients with propositions and messaging that address patient’ WIIFM, or “What’s In It For Me”… and to do so with consistency.