Identifying Approaches to Improve the Patient Experience

By: Jeff Paulson
Jul 21, 2016 12:05 PM ET
Jeff Paulson, President, Healthcare Services, Sodexo North America

Identifying Approaches to Improve the Patient Experience

This is the second in a continuing blog series based on the findings from the Sodexo 2016 Healthcare Compendium, a compilation of research that examines the increasing trend toward a focus on value in the healthcare sector. Read the full article Understanding and Managing Patient Fear in the Hospital Setting.

With the exception of the birth of a healthy baby, most people view the prospect of hospitalization with varying degrees of fear, from normal anxiety to full-blown terror. The reasons are as varied as the individuals, but often are based on the feeling of a loss of control and depersonalization. Creating a positive patient experience requires an understanding of what’s behind individual fears and adjusting the systems and protocols to relieve them as much as possible.

Why should hospitals be concerned about anything other than clinical outcomes? A patient is admitted for a condition, gets treated, and is discharged to their primary physician’s care. This impersonal approach has undergone radical changes with the rise of patient consumerism and the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey.

The concept of the Patient Experience has emerged as a result of the shift toward a patient-centered care model. From a business perspective, hospitals that focus on all aspects of the patient’s experience are more likely to see improvements in their patient satisfaction survey data and HCAHPS.

While there is as yet no standard definition of the Patient Experience, the reality is that people often have a choice about which hospital they go to, and they base that choice on how they are treated as a person as much or more than on clinical outcomes. And, the results of the HCAHPS surveys determine the hospital’s Medicare reimbursements that are essential to fiscal viability. An increasing number of private insurers also rely on Patient Experience information in setting their reimbursement levels. Clearly, improving patient-centered care and focusing on patient feedback is no longer simply the right thing to do—it’s now a business imperative.

A hospital’s approach to patient care should logically be based on several considerations. Patient fear is one component.  The Patient Empathy Project conducted by Colleen Sweeney of the Beryl Institute revealed the following concerns:

  • Infection
  • Incompetence
  • Death
  • Cost
  • Medical mix-ups
  • Needles
  • Rude doctors and nurses
  • Germs
  • Diagnosis/prognosis
  • Communication issues
  • Loneliness

As detailed in the research article Understanding and Managing Patient Fear in the Hospital Setting, these fears are often interlinked—patients worry, for example, that incompetence and communication issues can lead to medical mix-ups, exposure to germs, infection and possible death. A lack of communication and real or perceived rudeness on the part of hospital staff exacerbates fear when people think they aren’t being listened to or given the right information. And then there’s loneliness. Medical care normally accounts for just 10% of a patient’s hospital stay, so they are left alone most of the time. As a patient in the Empathy Project said, “It’s in that loneliness that fear comes in, because all you can do is worry.”

According to Sodexo’s research and the resultant Behavioral Segmentation Tool—Personix™—patients’ attitudes can be categorized in one of six different ways that affect how they handle their fears: Self-Centric, Attention-Seekers, Minglers, Acceptors, Worriers and Loners. These attitudes can change as a result of specific experiences during the hospital stay.

Medical professionals realize that patients’ fear reactions to their experience produce cognitive, physiological, behavioral and affective reactions that can derail a speedy and safe recovery, regardless of the particular fear or an individual’s attitude classification. Fear makes the patient’s treatment experience seem far worse than it really is, heightening discomfort and raising the risk of inaccurate vital sign measurements such as blood pressure, often caused by the “white coat syndrome,” a phenomena that could lead to unnecessary medication. At its worst, fear can even keep people from seeking the treatment they need.

So what’s the solution?  Both hospital staffs and primary care doctors can make a big difference by approaching patients with compassion and respect, offering emotional and psychological support and arming them ahead of time with plenty of information. Other interpersonal aspects involve enabling self-care, giving families a voice in decision-making, and providing the patient with clear, transparent information. Meanwhile, functional aspects refer to the basic conditions of care. These include effective and timely treatment, providing the patient with a safe, comfortable and clean environment, and coordinating smooth transitions and continuity between healthcare teams.

Knowledge and preparation create a more confident frame of mind, enabling patients to face hospitalization feeling more informed and in control. This lays the foundation for a positive patient experience and in many cases, a better outcome—and both the patient and the hospital benefit.

Jeff Paulson is President of Healthcare Services for Sodexo North America responsible for both operations and business development. Mr. Paulson leads his team in the development and delivery of comprehensive Quality of Life solutions that address complex issues facing healthcare systems.