The unexpected drivers of patient retention

More than good bedside manner is needed.

As healthcare providers, we care about our patients. And we put a lot of time and effort into offering the best patient experience possible. But often, more than good bedside manner is needed. In today’s ever-changing clinical environment that spans in-person to virtual appointments, it's important to understand the nuanced factors driving patient satisfaction.

To deliver a great patient experience, providers need to understand patient perceptions, expectations, and preferences when it comes to receiving care. After reviewing some recent patient feedback, I believe there are some essential elements that define patient-perceived success—such as the likelihood of the patient returning to the clinic and even recommending the practice to others. The great news is that there are simple fixes any provider can make in their practice to attract more patients, retain them for longer, and help them achieve optimal outcomes.

The nuances of patient communication

Communication from the provider is one of the biggest factors contributing to patient-perceived success. Patient communication should be viewed as an ongoing process, not simply a one-time exchange. Yet, a recent survey by WebPT showed that only 30% of patients report receiving regular communications between appointments. Additionally, 52% of physical therapy patients felt that their at-home exercises would have been more successful with greater communication between appointments.

To deliver optimal communication, healthcare providers must pay attention to how—and when—patients receive communication. Digital delivery can make this process much more manageable. For example, rehab therapy providers can send their patients home exercises digitally instead of in paper format, thereby adding another touchpoint to the patient experience. Based on our survey, there's room for improvement in leveraging digital communication. In fact, the report showed that only 33% reported receiving their exercises in a digital format, yet 83% of patients who received their exercises digitally reported success in their care.

Beware of communication bias

It’s also important to be aware of communication biases in relation to how you are communicating across all patient groups. One of the most surprising insights found in the PT Patient Experience Report is that there is a genuine and significant difference in the frequency of communication across different age groups. There is a linear relationship between a patient’s age and the likelihood of receiving communication, with younger patients much more likely to receive frequent check-ins than older patients. This can also be seen when comparing athletic ability, with most athletic patients much more likely to receive communication than the least athletic patients.

Set clear expectations from the start

In the physical therapy industry—like many other healthcare disciplines—it seems that providers often link treatment “success” solely to outcomes measures. However, when we factor in the patient’s perspective, the definition of success changes.

To set clear expectations with patients, it’s important to set up a thorough plan of care for each patient from the beginning of their treatment process. This includes anticipating the number of appointments needed throughout the care journey and adjusting the volume of appointments as required. Calibrating a patient’s plan of care as needed to adjust to their ability and availability will significantly affect the patient’s perceived success.

Any effort spent in communicating clear expectations is worth the work, since patients who feel that their healthcare provider outlined clear expectations are more likely to report a higher level of satisfaction. The PT Patient Experience Report showed that 86% of patients who had clear expectations said they would recommend their treatment, and 74% said they’d repeat their treatment.

The need for mobile-friendly options

Today’s patients often get the question: “Paper or digital?” but simply asking the question isn’t enough—we need to actually listen to their answers. Understanding patient preferences around traditional versus digital communication goes hand-in-hand with patient success and retention.

In our report, the majority of patients across all age groups reported a preference for patient-centered tech to help them quickly and easily on-board, at their convenience. For example, 81% of patients prefer digital appointment reminders, with text being the #1 method. The only age-related difference found was a slight delivery difference, with patients under age 45 more likely to want to use a patient app while patients over age 45 more likely to prefer an online option.

A recent study by Pew Research showed that tech adoption among those 65 and older is increasing—so clinicians can be confident in offering digital solutions to patients of all ages. According to their research, the percentage of those 65 and older who own a smartphone has risen from 13% to 61% in the last decade. In the same timeframe, the percentage of those 65 and older who own a tablet has increased from 6% in 2012 to a whopping 44% today. Of course, COVID-19 played a role in accelerating the shift to online healthcare offerings, with many everyday functions rapidly transitioning to digital processes. It’s important to note that this change happened across all age groups.

Clearly, healthcare providers shouldn’t assume patient preferences based on age, athletic ability, or other factors. Solutions like digital appointment reminders, filling out intake forms online, online scheduling, and digital payment options should be available to patients across all age groups. Mobile-friendly services help patients feel that their needs are being met, thus increasing the likelihood of retention.

Since patient satisfaction is linked to retention, most providers are eager to level up wherever needed. Based on our findings, it’s clear that a great patient experience includes clear expectations, stellar communication, and an individualized experience. This combination is a surefire prescription to keep patients satisfied—and keep ‘em coming back.

Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC is co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer at WebPT. Heidi advises on the company’s strategic direction and product innovation, while advocating for the rehab therapy profession on an international scale. She co-founded WebPT after recognizing the need for a more sophisticated industry-specific EMR platform and has since guided the company through exponential growth, while garnering national recognition. Heidi brings with her more than 15 years of experience as a physical therapist and multi-clinic site director as well as a passion for healthcare innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership.