Patient Experience: Is it Right Only 5% of the Time?

Sometimes something gets stuck in my head and the only way to get it unstuck is to get the idea stuck in someone else’s head. 

A few weeks ago I came across something on one of the newsy channels having to do with a Canadian paleontologist sitting by himself on a pebbled beach in Quebec.  His life’s work revolved around pinpointing the place where fish first walked from the sea—the very fact that he was interested in finding out where fish first walked by inference implies his belief that they (fish) have walked on more than one occasion.

I know some of you are thinking, ‘And your point in writing to us about this is…”.

The television spot went on with the fellow reporting that the interesting thing is not that fish walked—which most open-minded non-Darwinians would have found sufficiently interesting all by itself—epochs later; yada yada yada—but that without them (the fish) having walked none of us (the non-fish) would be here.  It was alchemy in paleontology presented in an NPR/PBS authoritative manner, complete with a British accent, and the reporter was his Rapunzel.  If we say it on PBS it must be true.  The show did not offer any opinion to the contrary.  I wanted for someone to pop onto the set and say, “Prove it.”

What troubled me about the show was that he and his amanuensis, the reporter, with her eyes wide shut, somehow managed to create a dialogue around this notion as though it (the meaning of life) actually happened the way this fellow said it did.  I’ve seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and it did not happen that way at all.  The report’s interview of the ichthyologist was like watching two left-handed men learning to dance backward without either one knowing the woman’s part.

The voices in my head started screaming epitaphs at me.  The paleontologist’s mind tacked intuitively and lurched from idea to idea untouched by the clammy hand of logic.  His premise made as much sense to me as having an oboe player in a punk rock band, yet the erstwhile reporter, with her sang-froid composure, uttered nothing more than an ‘uh-huh’ and looked as though she was watching time bend right in front of her Oliver Peoples glasses as he explained the wonders of the universe to her with his do-re-mi recitation of the facts.

Some people in front of a camera have the innate ability to insult our intelligence with boredom and futility—sometimes I do it with a blog.  His perfervid idea was stranded on the edge of reality and it worked about as well as a poorly used preposition at the end of a sentence.  As I asked blankly of the television show whether any of these walking fish were found wearing shoes, the reporter listened to his promulgation, nodded and followed him into the rabbit hole.  She never questioned whether the compass of his intellectual qualifications may have been missing its needle.

Therein lays the rub.  Simply saying something aphoristically on television does not make it true.  What was intended as an ephemeral interview now exists for the folly of all of us.  The man is guilty of sharing his ideas without having a hall pass to do so, but then again, so am I.

Maybe that is how mermaids came to be.


A lot of people only care about fixing business problems at the eleventh hour. The problem with that approach is that you never know when it is a quarter to eleven—you only know when it is quarter after.

Leslie Nielsen in the movie Airplane notices the pilot and copilot are incapacitated.  “We need to find someone who not only knows how to fly a plane but who also did not have the fish for dinner.” 

And boys and girls, therein lies the root of the patient experience dilemma—too many of us ate the fish that have been walking around, and we believed everything we were told by the ichthyologists.  They told us that everything you ever needed to know about patient experience could be found by surveying less than five percent of the people who interacted with you, by surveying people who had experiences that went unexperienced by the other ninety-five percent, and whose experiences took place months and months ago.  And who may they be?  They may be and are those who are telling you that they did not eat the fish; the rule makers; those who are selling you your own data; and those teaching your employees to smile more.

You would not build a hospital with only five percent of the materials, you wouldn’t give a patient only five percent of her medicine.  So why spend money on a patient experience strategy that has only a five percent chance of being right?

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