There is a lot of talk these days about the effect of patient satisfaction on healthcare reimbursement. It’s understandable, since both quality metrics and satisfaction scores are becoming significant factors in determining hospital, practice, and provider compensation. Yet despite all the talk, little is being said about the effect of patient satisfaction on physician happiness.
An inherent connection exists between physician and patient satisfaction that goes well beyond the reimbursement landscape. Simply put: The gratification of one isn’t possible without the happiness of the other. So by ensuring that patients are pleased, physicians do more than help bolster practice revenue — they nurture their own job fulfillment.
Think about a typical patient visit and the mutual nature of the physician/patient relationship becomes clear. It also shows us how much non-clinical dynamics can impact it.
In the first “typical visit” scenario, a patient arrives irritated because it took her four phone calls to schedule the appointment, she couldn’t find parking, and then she had to sit in the waiting room filling out an endless stack of paper forms. The physician in this situation has to work extra hard to engage the patient.
As if that is not frustrating enough for the physician, he faces the added worry of wondering whether the patient’s displeasure will create a downward ripple effect. Will the patient’s lack of engagement negatively affect her clinical outcomes? Will she leave the practice for another doctor? Will her bad experience sway payers’ decisions about including the practice on their panels?
On the other hand, consider what happens if the same patient comes into the exam room in a happier mood. Perhaps the practice’s online portal allowed her to quickly schedule the appointment, fill out the necessary paperwork at her convenience, and download a map showing nearby parking. Because the patient already feels the practice respects her time, communicates efficiently and cares about her well-being, the physician has an easier time engaging her in her own care.
The ripple effect in this case is much more positive: engaged patients tend to achieve better outcomes, which leads to professional satisfaction for the physician. As added benefits, improved clinical outcomes and satisfaction rates are likely to lead to higher patient retention rates and better financial incentives from payers.
Strategies to boost satisfaction
The good news for practices is that “soft” components often go a long way toward enhancing the patient/provider satisfaction circle. The key is identifying those components and following up. Some strategies to keep patients — and providers — pleased include:
• Survey patients. Patient satisfaction surveys are no longer “nice-to-have;” well-run practices must use surveys to identify both strengths and weaknesses in the patient experience. Physicians are much more willing to change behaviors, if necessary, when presented with data that clearly pinpoints problems. A physician may believe, for instance, that she has an excellent rapport with her patients. Yet when shown data that indicates a majority of her patients complain, “she doesn’t look me in the eye,” she will likely remedy the issue. Although the upfront costs for surveys can be high — especially for practices on tight budgets — the data they generate can be invaluable to the overall health of the practice.
• Use data to drive improvement. Survey data is most beneficial when practices understand the reasons behind low scores. Work with survey companies to re-survey or even call patients to find out why they are unhappy. The results can be surprising; one OB/GYN practice, for example, found that its pregnant patients were upset by a small restroom that forced them to wait in long lines.
• Conduct physician surveys. Just like patients, physicians should have a vehicle to voice their needs and concerns via an annual physician engagement survey. However, practices must be as ready and willing to respond to physician feedback as patient feedback. Use the data generated by physician surveys to give providers the support they need to help their patients. For example: If the survey reveals that timely documentation requirements are weighing down physicians as they interact with patients, consider assigning scribes.
• Set clear parameters. Nobody likes what they cannot anticipate, so clearly define productivity and other expectations the moment physicians join the practice. Create forums where physicians can voice concerns formally and professionally with administration and physician leadership. Take all concerns seriously, and follow up with defined action items.
Closing the loop
Every relationship — including the physician/patient relationship — requires the commitment of both parties. Consequently, practices cannot overlook the impact of patient satisfaction on provider happiness. Think of it as a closed-loop system: More engaged patients lead to more satisfied providers, which in turn leads to a better patient experience. It is a cycle in which success breeds success, ultimately fulfilling both patient and provider.
Johanna Epstein is vice president management consulting services at Culbert Healthcare Solutions, a professional services firm serving healthcare organizations in the areas of operations management, revenue cycle, clinical transformation and information technology.