Patient Experience Versus Satisfaction: What is the Difference?

Think about the answer to this question, how many nights have you spent in a hotel in the last decade?  For most of us the answer is more than one hundred.  How many nights have you spent in a hospital in the last decade?  For most of us the answer is probably between none and ten.  So then, when you go somewhere to spend the night and have your meals delivered, from which organization do your expectations about being satisfied most likely come?

Patient, customer. Hospital, hotel. Tomato, ta-mah-tow.  For those who want to argue that there are no similarities feel free to continue to do so.  For the rest of us let us look at how to improve patient satisfaction.

A few days ago I spoke with a hospital CEO about his efforts to improve the patient experience and about patient satisfaction.  He said that for years his hospital has spent a lot of money buying all sorts of data about their patients’ experiences.  The problem he said is that the company providing the data never did anything more than sell them the data.  So they kept getting all of this data but never saw any improvement in their patients’ experience that could be tied to the data they purchased.

That hospital has also hired coaches in the belief that this would help improve the experience.  The results were the same.

I asked him why he kept spending money when the expenditures failed to deliver the desired result.  He replied that the two things he knew he could do that would yield the greatest and most immediate increase in patient satisfaction would be to increase the number of parking spaces and to improve the food service.  Did he learn that from the survey data or from the coaching?  Nope.  He learned that from his patients’ family and friends.

Four rules worth remembering:

  1. Experience and satisfaction are related but they are not the same.
  2. Every patient has an experience but the experience does not always result in a satisfied patient.
  3. Patient satisfaction cannot be improved without knowing a patient’s expectations.
  4. Purchasing data and paying for coaching do not change rules 1-3.

Having thousands of data points comparing how your hospital is performing against other hospitals gives you a report card; it does not improve either the patient’s or patients’ experience. Coaching employees probably will not improve patient experience.

It is not the employees that need fixing.  Broken, outdated processes result in dissatisfied patients.

Patients have multiple points of contact with the hospital; before they are admitted, while they are in the hospital, and when they go home.  If you can answer the following questions you have a basis for improving patient satisfaction.

  • Which points of contact have the greatest impact on patient satisfaction?
  • When did anyone last ask patients to define their expectations?
  • Which points of contact affect most of your patients?
  • Which points of contact are frequented most by your patients?
  • What are the consequences of not knowing these answers?

The answers to these questions do not require purchasing data, nor do they require coaching.

Two highly frequented points of contact are your website and your call center.  Go to your web site and try to complete a simple task—schedule an appointment, or try to understand your bill—taks that might be done by a patient or by a patient’s family member.  Could you do it?  Were you satisfied?

Now dial the call center and ask the person who answers the phone a question about Medicaid or Medicare billing.  Could that person give you the correct answer?  Could the person they transferred you to give you the correct answer?  Did the recorded voice telling you to call back between the hours of eight and five give you the correct answer?  Were you satisfied?

If you were not satisfied, why would you expect your patients to be satisfied?  Satisfaction has everything to do about processes and customer service.  Data and smiles do nothing to improve broken processes and poor customer service.

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7 thoughts on “Patient Experience Versus Satisfaction: What is the Difference?

  1. Reblogged this on Optimizing Healing Healthcare and commented:
    Paul Roemer describes the difference between “patient experience” and “patient satisfaction” in this blog. My concise explanation of the difference — and there is definitely a difference! — is that “patient satisfaction” is the rating a patient gives their experience based on how well their expectations were “satisfied” (met).

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    • Molly, thanks for reading and commenting. I’ve always thought more can be learned by buying donuts and coffee for the front-line people and asking them how to improve the business than by talking to the people with the big offices. If you would like to link please send me an invite at paulroemer@gmail.com

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  2. Truly it is about process improvement. It was clear to me early in my career in health care access back in the ’80’s, when I could not understand why the process for buying a head of lettuce at the supermarket was “far more efficient” (because of bar scanning technology) as compared to how we registered and admitted patients. While today, many solutions including, giant sophisticated EMRs are becoming installed, there is still much missed opportunity to align process and experience. I agree, focus should begin at key touch points, however, the full experience occurs throughout a patients journey through the continuum. The experience and processes need to remain streamlined and consistent.

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    • I’ve always been a stickler between being efficient and being effective. It is always easier to make really bad processes efficient–i.e. to make them faster. That is why I am not a fan of Six Sigma. Instead of shaving 30 seconds of the admissions process, why not eliminate the admissions process by letting patients admit themselves online?

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