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Five Steps to Improve the Patient Experience


Good clinical outcomes require strong patient participation. One way to engage your patients is to improve their experience at your practice.

It is believed that strengthening the relationship between healthcare providers and their patients will lead to earlier detection of diseases, better patient compliance, reduction of cost, and improved clinical outcomes, among other benefits. To that end, the ACA has instituted measures to change physician behavior and hold them accountable for improving patient experience. By 2017, practices will be required to conduct and report Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems - Clinician & Group Surveys to CMS as part of the transition to a new value-based reimbursement program.

The intent over time is to improve population health for the United States, while reducing the cost of medical care. One of the most important contributing factors to accomplish this requires improving the patient experience. Here are five key steps you can take to make that change in your practice:

1. Make your practice look and feel engaging

Patients will judge your practice before they even meet you. Making a good impression starts with a well-designed, patient friendly website where the public can learn about your practice: including your mission; the credentials of your physicians; the range of services you offer; your location(s) and office hours. Also don't forget to include interactive tools that allow patients access to even more information via pull-down menus, a map and directions to the office, and a portal for existing patients to make payments, schedule follow-up appointments, and communicate through secure e-mail.

Remember that a welcoming practice also depends on an appealing, clean, and comfortable office with amenities to ensure patients feel cared for and important, in both the reception area and the exam room.

2. Honor patients with respect and attention

Physicians, managers, and staff must equally commit to give patients the attention they deserve throughout the touchpoints of their visit; from the time the patient arrives for a scheduled appointment until the time he leaves at the end of the visit. Make sure all staff are trained to consistently provide a specific standard of service established by your practice manager, and make sure to hold them accountable. This means measuring how well you are delivering on your promise to meet a standard of care and service. It can be accomplished by implementing patient post-encounter interviews, establishing patient dispute procedures, and/or conducting patient satisfaction surveys.

Provide staff training through an annual customer-service workshop that will reinforce your practice's commitment to patient service. It can be conducted during an extended lunch hour where meals are provided and there is time to share concerns and ideas on how to become a best-service practice.

3. Improve communication at every step of the patient visit

This means answering phones promptly with enthusiasm, introducing yourself to patients, and being helpful and willing to answer all of their questions. If you don't have the answer, get it, and never say no to a patient. Make good eye contact and smile. Listen for and look for cues from your patients. If they seem restless be reassuring, if they are worried be comforting and confident. At the end of the patient's interaction be sure to ask is there is anything else you can do for her today. Your job and the patient's experience depend on every member of the team putting the patient's needs first.

4. Make ease-of-access a top priority

This starts with a well-managed appointment scheduling system that has realistic templates. It means understanding demand and preparing for it by having enough available appointments, based on historical same-day demand. It means starting on time and ending on time. It means keeping the office and the phone lines open during the lunch break. This can be done by staggering staff schedules (start times, end times, and lunch breaks) between physicians and staff members.

Also build in accountability by tracking patient access. Know when the next available appointments are and require your appointment schedulers to communicate when demand shifts and appointment needs are being compromised. Your practice management system and EHR can provide critical performance data. Run system reports each month and analyze them. This builds in needed accountability that focuses on improving the patient experience and the service your practice provides.

5. Commit to timeliness

Be prompt in answering phone calls, don't keep patients on hold more than 30 seconds, and don't jockey them around from one person to the other. Also be diligent in returning phone calls and e-mails within a standard time frame. Communicate the established timeframe to providers, staff, and patients. Again, this reinforces accountability.

Timeliness typically suffers the most when patients are kept waiting for their appointments. Check them in promptly and let them know how long they are likely to wait. Most practice management systems can track patients through the system beginning at check-in. It is important that staff understand this feature and use it consistently. It is a great tool and provides reports that measure performance in work flow and also helps identify any hiccups that keep patients waiting unnecessarily. It's an opportunity for everyone to improve patient service and patient flow.

You cannot manage what you do not measure. If other people are measuring your performance based on the patient experience, it is time for your practice to understand the significance and measure its own performance. This requires a commitment on the part of physicians and staff, will lead to improving the patient experience.

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