Six Ways to Improve Patient Satisfaction Scores

May 20, 2015
Lucien W. Roberts

Patient satisfaction is doubly important now that it is a payment metric. Make sure you are doing everything possible to get the top scores you deserve.

Large physician practices and hospitals already have a portion of their payments linked to patient satisfaction. Over the next few years, it will be an integral portion of physician payment, including penalties possibly dwarfing those under meaningful use. More about this program, known as the Clinician & Group Consumer Assessment of Health Providers and Systems (CG-CAHPS) can be found on the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's website.

Here's the government's hypothesis in a nutshell:

• Patients who like their doctors are more likely to be compliant patients;

• Compliant patients are healthier patients;

• Healthier patients are less expensive; so

• Physicians with satisfied patients should be paid more than physicians with dissatisfied patients.

The Affordable Care Act introduced a different set of quality metrics than used by the Institute of Medicine (IOM): quality, patient satisfaction, and payment. Quality is a key element with both programs, but there's an important difference with the reform law: your patients are the arbiters of quality. Quality more or less equals patient satisfaction.

What's being measured?

CG-CAHPS measures the patient experience, an expansive proxy for quality that takes into account the following:

• Timely appointments

• Timely care (refills, callbacks, etc.)

• Your communication skills

• What your patient thinks about you

• What your patient thinks about your staff

• Your office running on schedule

I have been in enough medical practices - both as a patient and as an administrator - to know there's a method to this madness. It's less about the care and more about the caring. Here's what I suggest for improving your quality measures via these proxies.

1. Hire sunshine.

I can train anyone* to do anything in our office, but I can't train sunshine.  Look to hire positive and happy people, particularly for roles with lots of patient interaction. Your patient satisfaction - and thus, your "quality" - will improve. You'll also find a cost-saving benefit to this hiring tactic: employee turnover will shrink.

2. Start on time.

CG-CAHPS asks patients whether they were seen within 15 minutes of their appointment times; it's even underlined for emphasis. Physicians who start on time are more likely to run on time, so have your feet set before you start running.

3. Set patient expectations.

It's helpful to share with patients the FAQs about your practice so that they know what to do for refills, after-hour needs, appointment scheduling, etc. By making these answers available on your website, on your patient portal, and in your print materials, you'll better align patient expectations with patient experiences and thereby score better on quality surveys.

Some patients gauge quality by whether or not they get the antibiotic they think they need. It's helpful for primary-care physicians to include education on antibiotic overuse in their patient education materials.

Along these lines, it is important for your patient to know what to expect after their visit in terms of test results, follow-up visits, etc. I receive more complaints about the back end of our patients' experiences than anything else. Make sure you and your staff do not drop the ball as you near the goal line.

4. Listen with your eyes.

Nothing says "I don't care" like having your physician focus on a computer screen rather than on the patient. This is particularly true in the first couple of minutes of each visit, and especially important with new patients. One virtue of using medical scribes is that you can listen with your eyes a whole lot more.

5. Put your staff in their place.

Your staff has an important bearing on the patient experience. I'm a big fan of letting them know their actions influence quality. It's pretty cool, for me as a mere bureaucrat, to know that I can improve quality simply by being friendly and helpful to our patients. Make sure your staff knows that making a patient's day is a beautiful act.

6. Monkey see, monkey do.

Staff will follow your lead. If your thoughts and actions emphasize running on schedule, being kind to patients and their families, and not dropping balls, they'll be stronger teammates for you.

Patient satisfaction has always been a gauge of quality, just as patient referrals remain the lifeblood of most practices. Treat this next wave as an opportunity to show off the caring that has always been a big part of the medical care you offer your patients.

* The Wonderlic Personnel Test is my tried-and-true tool for measuring cognitive acumen. Anyone who scores 20 or more on this test can be trained to do most any non-clinical task in your office. A score of 25 or more suggests an innate ability to juggle tasks under stress, a great quality in today's medical practice.

Lucien W. Roberts, III, MHA, FACMPE, is administrator of Gastrointestinal Specialists, Inc., a 22-provider practice in Central Virginia. For the past 20 years, he has worked in and consulted with physician practices in areas such as compliance, physician compensation, negotiations, strategic planning, and billing/collections. He can be reached at muletick@gmail.com.