Do our actions always match aspirations in improving patient experience?

Is improving patient experience a priority in your organization? Virtually all leaders in health care I talk with answer with a resounding “yes.”

But this question also prompts reflection. How much of a priority is improving patient experience? Does our stated philosophy drive our everyday practice, especially in what we reward … and what we penalize?

First, we need to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that the vast majority of dedicated healthcare professionals provide exceptional, compassionate experiences for patients and families every minute of every day. Especially in light of the COVID-19 crisis, their dedication and bravery cannot be overstated.

Unfortunately, there are a small number of caregivers who fall short, either unknowingly or intentionally. Patients remember these lapses in compassion vividly and they talk more frequently and vehemently about bad experiences than good ones.

Following are five key questions leaders need to ask themselves about the state of patient experience improvement in their organizations.

Who’s responsible for patient experience?

It’s one of the first questions we ask in frontline staff focus groups when we are conducting our Patient & Staff Experience Snapshot in an organization. If we get an answer other than, “we all are,” we know there’s a problem. Ultimately, staff members in high performing organizations answer, “I am.” And they believe it with conviction.

Are patient and employee engagement efforts linked to broader quality goals?

Enlightened health care providers understand that patients view their care experience as a major  indicator of quality. Research also shows that key aspects of the patient experience related to communication are more highly correlated to outcome metrics (such as readmissions and care plan compliance) than traditional clinical process measures. Press Ganey research shows that the survey question, “How well did staff work together as a team?” is one of the most highly correlated questions to overall satisfaction. Smart organizations pay as much attention to effective communication across their team as they do with patients and families.

Are specific “leading” goals related to patient experience developed and tracked at the workgroup level?

Every organization measures patient satisfaction through some type of survey. If measurement alone led to improvement, all organizations would have rising PX scores. Organizations that are serious about improvement don’t just measure and track lagging goals (the ones we all report that look in the rearview mirror and tell us how we did last month or year). They set leading goals focused on the specific behaviors and practices that will move the needle going forward.

Are individual staff members’ efforts to provide an exceptional patient experience recognized and reinforced?

When our team at Stamp & Chase works in the trenches with frontline leaders, we round on both patients and staff. We follow a simple rule: when a patient praises the care provided by an individual staff member, we find that employee and pass along both what the patient said and our own expression of gratitude. So basic, yet so powerful. Studies from the Harvard Business School and others document the uplifting effect on workplace climate of providing more positive than negative feedback to a team.

Are blatant patient experience lapses identified for corrective action?

Yes, this is a tough one. But if leaders have and document difficult conversations with staff when they are absent or tardy, shouldn’t they be willing to talk with them about the impact their behaviors are having on patients’ care? When an employee is indifferent to the first HCAHPS question (treating patients with courtesy and respect), we owe it both to the families we serve and to their hard-working colleagues to tell them that their behaviors must change.

The intent of corrective action is certainly not to dwell on the negative. Rather, when leaders holding all staff members to the same high standard, exceptional caregivers feel reinforced and elevated. Put more bluntly, it answers a complaint we hear often from great employees: “Why do they let a few people act like that?”

Changing and sustaining best practices and behaviors across an entire team is not easy. That’s why most organizations find improving patient experience much tougher than they expect. At the heart of this work is an investment in professional development and training to help frontline staff and managers develop the communication competencies that will lead to individual success as well as the success of their team.