Four Common Problems Found in Patient Satisfaction Surveys

August 13, 2014

Patient surveys almost always sound like a good idea, but most of the time poorly thought-out objectives and questions make them a waste of time and money.

Patient surveys almost always sound like a good idea, but most of the time they are at best a waste of time and money. Here are four common pitfalls found in patient satisfaction surveys, plus four ways to avoid them:

1. The survey is not designed to answer a specific question or questions.
If there is no imperative to gather insight or data, there is no legitimate purpose for a survey. (I will address illegitimate purposes later.)

Even if there is a desire to answer a specific question, it is no mean feat to craft an effective survey instrument. One of the primary challenges is to make statements and ask questions that elicit pertinent, unambiguous responses.

Another challenge is to maintain neutrality, not predisposing any particular answer. It is hard and generally expensive. The survey exercise is a waste if the value of the potential information does not exceed the costs.

How to avoid this problem: Be clear about the objective. What do you really want to know and why?

2. The structure of the survey does not support a robust exchange of information and opinions.
An example is the survey I recently received from my dentist. One question was something like: "Were your expectations met?" I was supposed to respond with a one to five rating for "Not at All" to "Far Exceeded."

Since I have been a patient of the practice for several years, I know both the office and the drill (no pun intended), so I answered with a neutral "3," even though I suspected what they really wanted to know was if I was pleased or not.

How to avoid this problem: Make it possible for the patients to provide a meaningful response. It can be as simple as asking, "What do you want to tell me about ________?"  Patients, like all people, are remarkably willing to share their wants, needs, likes, and dislikes. If the objective is insight as opposed to statistical significance, you are much more likely to get what you need from subjective, free form responses than averaging Likert scale ratings.

3. There is no commitment to act upon the information gathered.
Unless the practice is doing the survey to inform some sort of initiative that will increase revenue, decrease costs, improve patient satisfaction (which should eventually increase revenue), or satisfy a regulatory imperative, the survey produces no benefits to offset the cost. That's one definition of a waste of time and money.

4. The survey raises patient expectations that the practice is really interested in the feedback, without delivering on the implied promise of improvement.
This wastes good will as well as time and money. The practice has asked its patients to expend time and energy for the purpose of helping the practice. The implied compensation to the patients is that their feedback will drive changes that eventually benefit the patients. Failure to act on the feedback is often viewed as reneging on a bargain.

Patients may see the survey as both a waste of their time and hypocritical posturing. This situation destroys even more good will. It is never good for patients to be cynical about a provider or practice, because cynicism in one facet of the relationship breeds cynicism in every facet.

How to avoid problems #3 and #4: Don't even ask until you are willing and able to respond to what you learn.