Patient satisfaction should be exclusive…to everyone

Sometimes it feels like I fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down.

Important: Do not remove the wires from your old thermostat until you have marked them with the enclosed labels.

This warning was printed on a bright red background with yellow text and hidden away in the middle of the adult-proof ballistic packaging of the new thermostat.

“Why didn’t you read the directions before you disconnected the old thermostat?” My wife asked as soon as she realized the fan was not working.

“Is there a reason one of the plants in the garden is on fire?”

“You have to power-wash the deck before you put the furniture on it.”  This is the heavy, metal outdoor furniture I am forced to carry indoors once the weather turns cold so that it can hibernate, and return it to the outdoors in spring. 

All my explanations about the fact that the furniture was designed for the outdoors and that it will outlast the next dinosaur ascendency go unheard.  It is this same furniture for which she has militaristically drilled the family, with the rigor of nuclear submarine crew trained to extinguish fires, to race indoors with the cushions whenever rain is expected anywhere within the lower 48 states.  Perhaps she read somewhere that if the cushions get wet they will suffer the fate of the Wicked Witch of the West and melt.

Responses are neither required nor expected of any of the questions or statements tossed at me.  To do so would be akin to arguing in a vacuum—as opposed to with a vacuum.

Pearls of wisdom, in my case, tossed amongst swine.  “Mongo just pawn in the game of life”—Mel Brooks, Blazzing Saddles.

The world has changed.  Customers have changed. All businesses have changed the relationship between themselves and their customers. With few exceptions, healthcare has not changed its approach to patients, and nobody seems to own up as to why.

The way the business model used to work is the business pushes communication from the business to the customer. Businesses evolved to the point where communication between the business and the customer became a push-pull model. The business pushes something to the customer.  Sometimes the customer pulls information, and sometimes the customer pushes information to the business.

Most pushes and pulls function on a one-to-one basis; the business to a single customer (patient), and back. It occurs in secret. Customer A was never aware of the push-pull between the business and Customer B.

Communication is no longer secret. In fact, it is anything but secret, especially among customers.  As the number of customers increases, their communication about a business can go quickly viral—not between patients and the hospital, but among patients. 

Hospitals can do a lot of things but they cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube.

I think patient satisfaction should be exclusive…to everyone, but then I have been accused of trying to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

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Patient Satisfaction: Still buying Data and Coaching, Why?

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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Why your Website is Killing Patient Satisfaction

Hospitals probably have more than one hundred points of contact with each patient.  These points of contact (POCs) begin before the patient is admitted and continue after the patient has been discharged.

The first contact may come by a visit to one of the hospital’s clinics, a 3 A.M. call to a primary care physician, or browsing the hospital’s website.

Yesterday I assessed whether the website of a large hospital group was functional or whether it was just a website window-dressed to look like a customer portal. I assess functionality based on whether I was able to accomplish what I set out to accomplish.

I counted dozens of different phone numbers to call. Along with the list of numbers were links for physician and employee portals, links to the board, a link for donors, wellness, specialties, medical professionals, and dozens more, all on the front page. 

There was even a link, albeit not a portal for patients—a rather important link since the number of visits by patients and prospective patients probably greatly exceeds the combined number of visits by all other visitors to the site.  Unfortunately the patient link was imbedded with six other equally weighted links.

I clicked the patient link and was greeted by two-dozen new links, each displayed as being of equal importance.  There were links for patients to use before coming to the hospital and links for them to use once they were home.  Points of contact with your hospital.  Points of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. 

I clicked some more.  Schedule an appointment.  There are actually two links for scheduling an appointment.  The first link gave me a phone number I could call M-F between 8 and 5:30 P.M.  What number do I call at 6 PM I wondered?  I tried the second link; it took me to the same place. Could I schedule an appointment online or through a mobile device?

What did I learn? There are 168 hours in a week.  Their scheduling service operates for 47.5 hours a week, 28% of the week’s hours. If I dialed that number after hours would I get a recording telling me how important my call was?  If my goal was to schedule an appointment using their website, or to schedule an appointment at any time on any device not only did the hospital not meet my expectation, it did not even offer me an alternative. A dead-end.

If it costs the hospital thirty dollars to schedule an appointment by phone and nothing to schedule an appointment online, why not complete the task correctly, the first time, and for zero cost?

I next looked at what I could do when I was home, more POCs, more chances to be satisfied or dissatisfied. 

Manage my medical records. Using the website I was able to print and mail, two very non-electronic processes, a request to have my records printed and mailed to me.  There was no way to submit my request using their website.  If I did not own a printer or did not have access to a printer my expectation was not met, and was I not offered an alternative.  Some people, a whole lot of people, actually like to complete tasks using a tablet or smart phone. Another dead-end.

Let’s try billing. For Medicaid patients there are two numbers to call for help understanding your bill. That means understanding Medicaid bills is a nontrivial exercise.  That tells me that if I asked the same Medicaid billing question of three different people I might expect to get three different answers.  Why not design the sight so that it provides one right answer to whatever question is asked?  Why not include an online chat feature? Why not create a link to a YouTube video, produced by the hospital that explains Medicaid billing?

Medicare.  No link to prequalifying, not even a phone number for questions.

How to pay your bill.  Perhaps the most difficult and least desirous task a patient must do. There is no link explaining the various components of the bill, and nowhere on the site is a copy of a sample bill explaining or highlighting the various sections of the bill.

There is also no link to understand how to file a dispute or a claim with a payer.  Maybe it is not possible to do this for every payer, but using the 80:20 rule there must be ways to help the majority of patients understand what they are up against rather than having them face down the evil empires on their own.

Patients come to the hospital’s website with expectations.  Patient satisfaction is repeatedly won or lost at your hospital’s website and on the phones.  POCs.  Having a tool that proposes to help patients with their bills that not only does not help them but that adds to their frustration will crush patient satisfaction.

Hospitals want patients to pay their bills and to pay them on time.  Patients who do not understand their bill will not pay more completely, nor will they pay faster.

The next time you look at your hospital’s website ask yourself how different it would look had someone asked a patient how it should function.

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Why Patients Lose Patience

Who is responsible for patient satisfaction?  The flaw of averages suggests that the buck does not stop somewhere.

Your amygdala’s been hijacked.

The bad thing about being a former mathematician in my case is that the emphasis is on the word former. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve forgotten more than I ever learned—sort of like the concept of negative numbers. It’s funny how the mind works, or in my case goes on little vacations without telling me. This whole parabola thing came to me while I was running, and over the next few miles of my run I tried to reconstruct the formula for a parabola. No luck.

My mind shut that down and went off on something that at least sounded somewhat similar, parables. That got me to thinking, and all of a sudden I was focused on the parable of the lost sheep, the one where a sheep wanders off and the shepherd leaves his flock to go find the lost one, which brings us to where we are today.

Sheep and effort.  Let’s rewind for a second. Permit me to put the patient lifecycle into physics for librarian style language—get the patient, treat the patient, lose the patient.  These are the three basic boxes where providers focus resources. How do manage the patient lifecycle to our advantage? We have marketing and sales to get the patient, we have patient care to treat the patient.  Can anyone tell me the name of the group whose job it is to lose the patient?  Sorry, I should have said to not lose the patient.

Patient retention.  Can anyone in your hospital tell me what specific efforts are underway to get patients to return the next time they need care?  I hope it involves more than the marketing department erecting another billboard with a picture of the urologists.

Where do most providers spend the majority of their intellectual capital and investment dollars? Hint—watch their commercials. It’s to get the patient. Out comes the red carpet. They get escorted in with the white glove treatment. Once they’re in, the gloves come off, to everyone’s detriment. Nobody ever sees the red carpet again. A high percentage of a hospital’s marketing budget is to get the patients. Almost nothing is spent to retain exiting patients.

Existing patients versus exiting patients. Why patients lose patience. 

Winning hospitals roll out the red carpet when patients exit. They do this for two reasons. One, it may cause a patient to return. Two, it changes the conversation. Which conversation? The one your patient is about to have with the rest of the world. How does your hospital want that conversation to go?

What do you have to do to get the patient to come back the next time he needs treatment? What the next visit of a patient worth to your hospital?  What about the next five visits? There seem to be a lot of questions for which answers seem to be missing.

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Dinner’s warm, it’s in the dog–Patient Expectations

ImageLet’s see what we can somehow tie this to patients; I couldn’t resist using the title. The phrase came from my friend’s wife. She’d said it to him after he and I came home late from work one night, he having forgotten his promise to call her if we were to be late. Apparently, she hadn’t forgotten his promise. We walked into the kitchen.  “Dinner’s warm—it’s in the dog.”  She walked out of the kitchen.  I think that’s one of the best lines I’ve ever heard.

He was one of my mentors. We spent a lot of time consulting on out-of-town engagements. I remember one time I took out my phone to call my wife when he grabbed me by the wrists and explained I shouldn’t do that. We had just finished working a 10 or 12 hour day of consulting and had stopped by a bar to grab a steak and beer. I remember there was loud music playing. When I inquired as to why I shouldn’t call he explained.

“When your wife is chasing three children around the house and trying to prepare dinner, she doesn’t want to hear music and laughter and clinking beer glasses. She needs to know that you are having as bad a night as she is. So call her from outside, and make it sound like tonight’s dinner would be something from a vending machine.”

“But it’s raining,” I whimpered. Indeed it was, but seeing the wisdom in his words I headed out and made my call.

So, back to the dinner and the dog, and the steak and the phone call. In reality, they are both the same thing. It all comes down to Expectations. In healthcare it comes down to patient expectations.

PEM can be a number of things; Patient experience management, Patient equity management, and Patient expectation management. In this instance, we are discussing the latter. A set of expectations existed in both scenarios. One could argue as to whether the expectations were realistic—and one did argue just that—only to learn that neither of our wives considered the realism of their expectations to be a critical success factor. In that respect, the two women about whom I write are a lot like patients, their expectations are set, and they will either be met or missed.

Each time expectations are missed, their expectation bar is lowered. Soon, the expectation bar is set so low it’s difficult to miss them, but miss them we do. What happens next? Patients leave. They leave and go somewhere they know will also fail to meet their expectations. However, they’d rather give their money to someone who may disappoint them than somebody who continued to disappoint them.

How Medical Dummies Can Improve Patient Satisfaction

At some point raising your HCAP score will do no more for your hospital than being able to calculate the next decimal place of pi.  The law of diminishing returns.

The CBS Sunday Morning program ran a piece on medical dummies used to train doctors in a variety of procedures and specialties.  Practicing on a dummy, students could learn how to perform spinal taps, drain knee fluid, administer anesthesia, and deliver a baby. Medical schools are also hiring actors to help doctors improve their bedside manner. 

These medical mannequins cost upwards of three hundred thousand dollars.  They can exhale CO2, have dilated pupils, and swollen tongues.  Hospitals invest millions of dollars to ensure that the treatment their patients receive is the absolute best.  Doctors and nurses spend thousands of hours ensuring that the treatment they provide their patients is the absolute best.

They do not do this just to improve the patient’s experience; they devote their resources and their time to get it right, as right as they can as often as they can. How does that devotion translate to how patients rate their hospital experience?

What do we know?

  • All procedures are as good as the doctors and nurses know how to make them
  • All patients undergo certain procedures
  • Most patients undergo an array of different procedures
  • Almost no patients undergo identical procedures in the identical order
  • Improving the efficacy of a single procedure is good for those patients having that procedure
  • That improved procedure only impacts a small percentage of the total patient population
  • Small improvements of discrete processes will not improve the total patient experience rating for the hospital

What else do we know? (for simplicity let us focus on in-patients)

  • All patients are scheduled, admitted, housed, fed, discharged and billed.
  • Improving any one of these areas will improve the satisfaction of all patients

The big unknown.

  • Why is nobody focusing on the things that will raise patient satisfaction across the board

The hospital business processes for scheduling, admitting, housekeeping, food service, discharging and billing affect each patient.  Has your hospital ever asked your patients what their expectations are of these processes? I have not come across one that has.  But for those hospitals that do not know what patients expect from these processes, I guarantee you that your patient’s satisfaction barometer is measured against the one other service they purchase that has scheduling, admitting, housekeeping, food service, discharging and billing—staying in a hotel.

But we are not a hotel.  Please, no whinging.  Because patients have spent hundreds of nights in a hotel, their expectations of scheduling, admitting, housekeeping, food service, discharging and billing are predetermined and fixed. Each of these processes, at least when compared to medical procedures are exceedingly simple and the most repeated processes in the hospital.

The chances of your hospital exceeding your patients’ predisposed expectations are slim.  The chances of underperforming are great.  If you have not worked hard at reinventing these processes, your call center, your CRM, and your patient portal in the last two years, your chances of satisfying anyone border on nil. If you are being honest, some of these processes have not changed since the hospital was built.

What do we know about the employees who deliver scheduling, admitting, housekeeping, food service, discharging and billing to your patients?  They are the lowest paid, lowest skilled, least educated, least trained, and lowest tenured people in your organization.

These same people, what they do, and how well they do it contributes greatly to how patients will rate their level of satisfaction with your hospital.  My guess is that what they do and how it is perceived probably accounts for at least fifty percent of how they rate your hospital.

Here is what I propose.  Back to the medical dummies and the actors.  Could they somehow be employed to improve patient satisfaction for scheduling, admitting, housekeeping, food service, discharging and billing?  Imagine having someone in your billing department trying to get a dummy to explain the wherefores of a forty-thousand dollar invoice and you will get a pretty clear picture of how the patient feels when they have a question about their bill.

Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that is a good thing unless you happen to be the person tied to the pier.

Crowdsourcing–The Patient is in charge

You may want to grab a sandwich, this is a long read.

For the longest time it has occurred to me that most companies find themselves in a state of what I like to label Permanent Whitewater. As they careen through the rapids, it is anybody’s guess as to whether they will capsize.  And the philistines they have appointed as commissioners would be more appropriately described as Ommissioners, as they have omitted themselves from understanding the world and leading their charges.

Now, what does that have to do with anything?  Thanks for asking.

For those of you who can find California on the map, you will recall the great turnip boycott of the nineteen seventies—I know they boycotted grapes, but I like grapes and do not like turnip, so I choose to have my own protest.  Anyway, this boycott worked, and as a result, the working conditions for migrant workers improved albeit only modestly.

And here is the kicker.  An entire industry was brought to its knees.  That is not the surprising part.  The surprising part is that all of this change was brought about at a time when there were three television channels and when people actually subscribed to newspapers.

From where I sit, social media can be divided into two camps, those who have not slept since the launch of Google+, and the far larger camp of those who have not lost a minute of sleep.  Businesses, for the most part are well entrenched in the latter group.

Part of the reason why businesses are slow to adopt social media can be attributed to their lack of belief that social media matters or can impact their business one way or the other.  And frankly, I think that has a lot to do with why our economy continues to rejoice in its malaise.

So, how to those of us in the first camp get those in the second camp to see the world our way, how do we get them to jump head-first into social media.  The answer is simple.  We need to create our own turnip debacle.

They say it cannot be done, so let us show them.  The one thing that would get companies to embrace social media quickly and unashamedly would be if there was one less company.

Companies, big ones, fat ones, firms that climb on rocks—feel free to finish the tune without my help have the following issues, they think they:

–       control their market

–       own their customers

–       are managing their customers

Companies are wrong about those three assumptions and the use of social media can and will prove this.  I would ask for a company to volunteer, but that would take too long.

If ABC, CBS, and NBC were able through their coverage of the grape boycott, bring about change to an entire industry, imagine with me what impact a global, committed bunch of savvy social media users could do to a single firm.

Here is what I propose.  Let us pick one firm.  The characteristics of this firm should be that it is well known and not well liked—this way if it self-destructs we can argue that we acted on behalf of a greater good.  It should also be a firm associated with technology, a firm that ought to at least be able to spell social media.  If I were asked which firm I would choose I would pick a firm in some aspect of telecommunications, say a firm like Comcast or Verizon—an easy target, a firm facing a customer experience war armed only with their CRM.

Now, the idea of our little social project will be to provide a heads-up to all of the other companies about the start date of the importance of social media.  Let’s tentatively agree on starting on the first of November unless there is a game on television I want to watch.

The goal of the project is to demonstrate that the bourgeois, the working class, with its harmless set of social media tools, can create affect enough of a disruption to an organization to make that organization sit up and take notice, or to make it disappear.

I am sure you remember the YouTube video of the Comcast technician that fell asleep on a customer’s couch.  It went viral, but Comcast did not, and that was simply a single posting by a single customer.  What would happen if the social media mavens decided to use the tools at their disposal and concentrate their efforts at or against a single firm?

Crowdsourcing 101.

I think the end result of such an effort would have a significant impact.  The impact could easily bring about more fundamental change about how firms use social media than was brought about by the grape boycott.

Sometimes something has to be sacrificed on behalf of the greater good.  Although a rising tide lifts all boats, it can ruin your day if your firm is the one chained to the pier.

What are your ideas?