Why Satisfying Patients is Dysfunctional

Technology creates trust among people who have never met.  Individuals, grouped via the web into “smart mobs” are sharing and collaborating in ways hospitals cannot. The individual has transformed from being a passive consumer into one having the collective intelligence of a mob of educated collaborators.

And guess what?  Hospitals are still marketing to and doing business development with individuals.  How well is that working?  These groups of patients and prospective patients are interacting en-mass while the hospital continues investing its resources erecting billboards and telemarketing prospective patients using Salesforce.

Using 1980’s technology hospitals are chumming the universe of potential patients armed with less information than they could find about a person using Google.  Their quarry, on the other hand, is armed by having access to information that represents the collective intelligence of every member of its smart mob.  The smart mob has developed a metasystem of information and opinions about organizations and they will use that metasystem to help them decide whether they will purchase services from your organization.

It is not a fair fight. A battle of wits in which one side is unarmed.

Disrupting the business model and changing the way you do something are not the same.  Motion is not movement.  Lean in not disruptive.  If your organization can be counted among the fans of the lean sigmaists and you want to be really lean all you have to do is turn of the lights and lock the doors; you can’t get much leaner than that.

After a while there will be nothing left to cut or change except to change what you do.  Building capacity for every sub-specialty is not disruptive, it is dysfunctional.  Having more MRIs in your facility than there are in Manitoba is the opposite of lean.  Isn’t it nonsensical to be lean in a few areas and obese in others?  Offering the same services as every other hospital in the area is not disruptive, it is duplicative.  It simply divides the revenue pie for any given procedure into smaller slices.

Hospitals know what they charge, not what their procedures cost.  They can’t pull a P&L per patient, or per procedure.  Healthcare does not know the ROI or NPV of retaining a patient or what it costs to acquire a patient.  If it did, it would invest more resources trying to retain patients, obtain referrals, and win-back former patients. 

Can hospitals make a sound financial argument for having a business development executive instead of a patient retention executive?  It costs ten times more to acquire a new patient than to retain one.

Is having a business development group in a hospital disruptive or is it dysfunctional?  Does it add value?

I ran the question through my head and discovered the following.  In the last decade my immediate family has purchased some form of healthcare at eight different hospitals within twenty-five miles of our home.  Each time we purchased healthcare from a hospital the other seven hospitals never knew we were looking to make a purchase.

To be more specific, once a year I take a cardiac stress test at one of the hospitals.  A cardiologist is present during the test.  Not once in the last ten years has anyone from the hospital told me about their cardiology services or invited me to tour their facility.  But they have a business development group and they advertise their cardiology practice.

Every hospital’s business development group is competing by pitching the same services as every other hospital in their market, and they are pitching those services to the same people as the other hospitals’ business development groups.  Don’t believe me?  Ask your CFO how much revenue the urology billboard generated or whether the business development group covered its costs.

Why are none of the hospitals competing on having the best patient experience?  If a hospital sells customer experience and customer satisfaction it will retain patients, get referrals, and win-back former patients.

Selling customer satisfaction in a market where none of your competitors is selling it is disruptive.  Disruption of an antiquated approach is a good thing.  How can your hospital disrupt its approach to improving patient experience?  Doing the same thing this year that you did last year is not disruptive it is dysfunctional.

If you need a vision statement for patient satisfaction how about using the phrase, A remarkable experience for every patient every time?  It sounds a lot better than ‘a satisfied experience.’  Simply being satisfied isn’t saying much.  If someone tells you that the place they had dinner last night was satisfying it probably doesn’t make you want to rush out and eat there. 

With so many hospitals competing for the same patient perhaps simply satisfying patients is dysfunctional.  The disruptive approach would be to plan to deliver a remarkable experience for every patient every time.

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The Wildebeest Postulate of Patient Satisfaction

The Kalahari; vast, silent, deadly. The end of the rainy season, the middayImage heat surpasses a hundred and twenty. One of the varieties of waterfowl, most notably the flame red flamingo that nested in the great salt pans in Botswana, has begun its annual migration. In the muck of one of the fresh-water pools that had almost completely evaporated, writhes a squirming black mass of underdeveloped tadpoles. A lone Baobab tree pokes skyward from the middle of the barren savanna. In its shade, standing shoulder to shoulder and facing out, a herd of wildebeest surveys the landscape for predators.  Sir David Attenborough and PBS can’t be far away.

Some things never change. I make my way across the freshly laid macadam to meet the school bus. Fifty feet in front of me is a young silver maple tree, the buds of its green leaves yielding only the slightest hint of spring hidden deep within. The late afternoon sun casts a slender shadow across the sodded common area. One by one they come—soccer moms; big moms, little moms, moms who climb on rocks; fat moms, skinny moms, even moms with chicken pox—sorry, I couldn’t stop myself—as they will every day at this same time, seeking protection in its shade. My neighbors.  It’s only sixty-five today, yet they seek protection from the nonexistent heat, a habit born no doubt from bygone sweltering summer days. A ritual. An inability to change. In a few weeks the leaves will be in their full glory, and the moms will remain in the shadow of what once was, standing shoulder to shoulder facing outward, scanning the horizon for the bus. A herd. Just like wildebeest.

The children debus–I invented the word.  Mine hand me their backpacks, lunch boxes, and musical instruments.  I look like a Sherpa making my way home from K-2.

I shared the wildebeest analogy with the neighborhood moms—the bruises will fade gradually. I can state with some degree of certainty they were not impressed with being compared to wildebeest. So here we go, buckle up. By now you’re thinking, “There must be a pony in here somewhere.”

Some things never change; it’s not for lack of interest, but for lack of a changer.  For real change to occur someone needs to be the changer, otherwise it’s just a bunch of people standing shoulder to shoulder looking busy. Motion is not the equal of movement.

How are you addressing the change that must occur to improve patient experience?  Patient experience is not about CMS.  It’s not about purchasing data about patient experience, and it is not about coaching and clowns.  It is about moving from a 0.2 business model to 2.0.  You need someone who sees the vision of what is is—sorry, too Clintonian—must lead.  Be change.

One of the great traits of wildebeest is that they are great followers.

Patient Satisfaction: How Many Days Ago Was Sunday?

How long have you been doing this?  That’s seems like a fair question to ask of anyone in a clinical situation.  It’s more easily answered when you are in someone’s office and are facing multiple framed and matted attestations of their skills.  Seen any good Patient Satisfaction or retention certificates on the walls of the people entrusted with the execution of the hospital’s patient experience endowment?  Me either. 

I have a cardiologist and he has all sorts of paper hanging from his wall.  Helps to convince me he knows his stuff.  Now, if I were to pretend to be a cardiologist—I’ve been thinking of going to night school—I’d expect people would expect to see my bona fides.

Shouldn’t the same logic apply to whoever is spending the hospital’s resources to retain patients? 

Please permit me to offer a real-life example. More than ten years ago I had a heart attack and was taken to a local hospital.  I lived, thanks for asking.  For the last ten years I have done all of my cardiac follow up at U Penn, a different hospital.  The hospital that treated me does not know that I lived; they never called, I never heard from them again.  Cost of a phone call—$30.  Cost of not retaining me as a patient—quite a bit.

(This same hospital has a large business development team and an equally large marketing department that frequently markets its cardiology offerings.  Talk about an opportunity to cut wasteful expenses.)

Imagine this discussion.

“What do you do?”

“I’m implementing something for the hospital that we have never done.”

“Why?”

“The feds say we’ve got to have it.”

“Oh.  What’s it do?”

“Nobody really knows.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“How many days ago was Sunday?”

“What’s it cost?”

“Somewhere between this much,” he stretches out his arms, “And this much,” stretching them further.

“Do the doctors want this?”

“Some do.”

“How will you know when you’re done if you got it right?”

“Beats me.”

“Sounds like fun,” she said, trying to fetter a laugh.

Sounds like fun to me too.

 

Patient Satisfaction: When you are in a hole, stop digging

I awoke this morning to a text message sent from my eleven year old son’s iPhone last night.  The message read, “My two girdles are killing each other.”

I was flummoxed until I spoke with my wife.  It was two gerbils that were killing each other.  Two gerbils, five dollars.  Autocomplete, priceless.

Having left my reading glasses at the hotel this morning I inquired of one of a my-gen coworker where I could buy another pair.  Judging by her stare, I do not think the twenty-something was any more familiar with the term ‘reading glasses’ than some people are with my epistles about patient satisfaction.

“Do you have trouble reading Dude, or are you looking for those Google glasses that read for you?”  She did not use the term Dude, I threw that in for effect.

I told her I did not have trouble reading and that I am able to read two years above my age level—bada boom bada bing.

I was thinking about the time I was teaching rappelling in the Rockies during the summer between my two years of graduate school.  Each one week camp was for high school students of varying backgrounds and their counselors.  On more than one occasion, the person on the other end of my rope, the person being rappelled, would freeze up from fear and I would either have to talk them down safely or rappel down or help them.

Late one day, a thunderstorm broke quickly over the mountain, causing the counselor on the end of my rope to panic.  No amount of talking was going to get her to move either up or down, so it was up to me to rescue her.  I may have mentioned in a prior post that my total amount of rappelling experience was probably no more than a few more hours than hers.  Nonetheless, I went off belay, and within seconds, I was shoulder to shoulder with her.  We were both perpendicular to the face of the cliff and some fifty feet from the bottom.

The sky blackened, and the wind howled, raining bits of rock on us.  I remember that only after I locked her harness to mine did she begin to relax.  She needed to know that she didn’t have to go this alone, and she took comfort knowing someone was willing to help her.

That episode reminds me of a story I heard about a man who fell in a hole—if you know how this turns out, don’t tell the others.  The man in the hole continues to struggle but can’t find a way out.  A CFO walks by.  When the man pleads for help the CFO writes a check and drops it in the hole.  A while later an applications vendor walks by—I know this isn’t the real story, but it’s my blog and I’ll tell it any way I want.  Where were we?  The vendor.  The man pleads for help and the vendor pulls out the contract, reads it, circles some obscure item in the fine print, tosses it in the hole, and walks on.

I walk by and see the man in the hole.  “What are you doing there?”  I asked.

“I fell in the hole and don’t know how to get out.”

I felt sorry for the man—I’m naturally empathetic—so I hopped into the hole.  “Why did you do that?”  He asked.  “Now we’re both stuck.”

“I’ve been down here before,” I said, “And I know the way out.”

I know it is a little sappy and self-serving.  However, before you decide it’s more comfortable to stay in the hole and hope nobody notices, why not see if there’s someone who knows the way out?

John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men included the statement, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.’  My take on it; the reason the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray is not the because of the plan; it is the mice and men. 

The problem is mice and men have a history with the organization.  They are constrained by phrases like ‘We’ve never done it that way’ and ‘that cannot be done.’  I believe most things people think cannot be done can be done, but then I have been accused of trying to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

One of the impossible things I believe is that there are simple ways to dramatically improve patient satisfaction for all patients by creating a remarkable experience for every patient every time.  Every time a patient or prospective patient interacts with the hospital they do so in one of three ways; they call, they go to the web, or they do so in person.

Each person is either satisfied or unsatisfied from every call, web visit, and visit.  The health system needs to get these interactions right one hundred percent of the time.  What does it mean to ‘get it right’?

If I go to the web to schedule a follow up appointment and I am given a number to call rather than an appointment, the hospital failed me.  If I call the hospital to understand Medicare billing and am told to call back during normal hours, the hospital failed me.

Finally, suppose using my Bluetooth headset on Dragon I use my iPad, and with voice commands navigate to the link on the hospital’s website showing me how to retrieve a copy of my medical records.  When I get there, having used every possible form of technology, I am instructed to click a link to open a form to request my records.  I then must print the form, complete it, find an envelope and a stamp, and post my request via snail mail.  Over the next few weeks the hospital will reverse the process and eventually I will receive my records.  My satisfaction dropped?  Why?  Because the link implied I could click something and get my records; the fulfillment process was out of date and under-delivered.

The Downside of Patient Experience

The Enchanted Forest was my first employer. My job was to direct cars to available parking, affix bumper stickers to those cars, and pick up the discarded Pampers—I lasted less than a day.

I mention that because today I had the pleasure of laboring through security at Philadelphia International Airport. Cattle awaiting slaughter in Chicago’s stockyards have a better experience.  Given the choice of being a TSA agent or picking up Pampers at the Enchanted Forest I’ll take the Pampers.  Lest we forget, all Americans should be forced to go through airport security once a year just to remember what those clowns did to us on 9-11.

I am flying USAIR; not by choice.  One of my fellow alums, our school’s poster child for success, is the CEO of USAIR.  I bet he flies Southwest, or maybe he does the John Madden thing and rides in his own bus whenever he has to travel.

Remember the old airline slogans, “We love to fly and it shows,” and “Fly the friendly skies of United,” and Delta’s “We’re ready to fly when you are”?  Today the universal slogan of the airline industry is, “We don’t like flying any more than you do, but hey, it’s a job.  We are no worse than the other airline.”  There is no pretense about competing on customer experience.  Far from it.

Airlines no longer even pretend to compete on price. It is almost as though they compete with one another to see which airline can come up with the most irritating surcharges.  Should we be forced to make an emergency water landing—as though there is anything other than an emergency water landing—your seat cushions may be used as flotation devices.  There is a five dollar non-refundable charge for those who may wish to use their seat cushions to save themselves and their loved ones.  A flight attendant will be passing through the aisle to collect payment and unlock your cushion.

To board the plane I had to pass between two closely aligned, six-foot, vertical, buttered rollers that were designed to lubricate both sides of each passenger to enable passengers to squeeze into the aircraft’s Barbie Doll seats.  As I am seated in an exit row I decide to take advantage of an on-the-spot micro-business opportunity.  I stand and announce to my fellow passengers, “Should we be forced to make any type of emergency landing you may wish to exit the plane.  There is a five dollar non-refundable charge for those who may wish to exit through my window exit.  I will be passing through the aisle shortly to collect payment.

The marketing campaign for the airline industry seems as though it was pulled almost word for word from the Les Misérables song, Master of the House.  “It doesn’t cost me to be nice, nothing gets you nothing, everything has got a little price. Master of the house, keeper of the zoo, ready to relieve them of a sous or two…charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for looking in the mirror twice.”  Essentially their customer retention plan is we can do whatever we want to you…if you don’t like it you can always walk.  “Two percent for looking in the mirror twice.”

Customer experience.  Patient experience.  Driving to the airport this morning NPR ran an advertisement from a Philadelphia hospital that was touting its hip and knee replacement offering.  You may not know this, but hospitals have a department that specializes in business development—I kid you not.  Highly trained individuals, MBAs—most likely all of the airline CEO positions were taken, toil day after day trying to figure out the answer to the question that has plagued mankind since the invention of the Band-Aid, ‘How do we get sick people to come to us’?  Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…healthcare’s business development strategy could be dubbed the Statue of Liberty strategy. 

Sometimes the business development people get together with the marketing people—it is like a Mensa meeting minus the mense—no need to look it up; I was just going for the alliteration.  I think this is how the billboard strategy of attracting patients came into being.  You know the one about which I am writing.  A mile or so from every hospital is a mammoth billboard depicting a photo of the hospital’s urologists—substitute your favorite specialty—all of whom are smiling.  I think the idea behind the billboard is to entice you to use their services should you happen to be passing a kidney stone as you are driving by.  (I read that in California the photo of the urologists has been replaced with a photo of the nip-&-tuck squad.)

What many hospitals seem to have failed to notice, or to have made operational, is that prospective patients choose their providers.  This has been going on for well more than a decade.  I know this because when I had my heart attack the ambulance driver determined where I was to be treated, a hospital fifteen minutes from my house.  For the last ten years I have chosen to travel more than an hour each way to the cardiologist I selected.  The original hospital, which has lost tens of thousands of dollars by not retaining me, does not even know if I am alive.  They never called to find out.  By the way, they have a lot of billboards.

Patient choice is undermining a lot of hospitals’ revenues.  As much as the healthcare industry would like us to believe that people choose their provider only based on specializations and mortality rates, other factors come into play.  One of those other factors, perhaps the biggest factor, is patient experience and their satisfaction with that experience.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America seem to have figured that out.  Their advertisements appeal to our base Freudianish needs, that the individual is special and wants to be treated as such.  CTCA does not advertise that you will not die if they treat you.  Their advertisements and their testimonials focus on the fact that their patients are treated like family. 

Essentially CTCA  have figured out that it is good business to approach cancer patients as smart customers.  CTCA cannot campaign on the fact that their patients don’t die.  Unfortunately cancer patients die, so that dog don’t hunt.  They cannot campaign on the fact that their treatment doesn’t make you nauseous, but as I also know from personal experience, chemo is awful, so that dog don’t hunt either.  So CTCA claimed the unclaimed ground, the ground over which none of their competitors are fighting; patient experience.

The CTCA’s phone lines are open 24 x 7, or you can reach them through a chat line to let them convince you about their integrated, specialized plan to treat you.  (They do not however have an iPad app which means they just lost points in the patient experience bonus round.)

Their patients travel across states at great personal expense.  Their patients are willing to pay more for even the possibility of a better experience.

I’ll close with this.  Almost every hospital has at least one MRI.  Each MRI probably delivers the same high quality images.  Each hospital probably has equally competent radiologists to read the images.  What then is your hospital’s competitive advantage?  Perhaps it is time to be able to answer that question.  The downside of competing on patient experience is that to do so you had better be pretty good at it.

Why not Improve Satisfaction Instead of Measuring it?

­One of the uncomfortable things about flying is how close you are to the other passengers.  On my return flight from Florida I could see from his teeth that the passenger in the window seat must have had spinach for lunch.  The most troubling part of my observation was that the passenger was in another plane, and neither of our planes was on the ground.

To back track for a second, I observed something else on my drive to the airport.  We are all familiar with the painted white lines that divide the road lanes.  On some roads, raised reflectors have been inserted into the road’s surface in addition to the painted lines.  At night these road nibs reflect your car’s headlights helping you to stay in your lane.

What’s your point?  If asked the color of these nibs we would response that they are white, just like the white strips.  Those who answered white would be half right.  As I looked in my rearview mirror I caught a glimpse of the backside of the nibs, and for some reason I was surprised to see that unlike the front, the backs of the reflectors were red.  It occurred to me that the reason they are red is to warn you that if you see red you are going the wrong way.

It goes to show you that just when you think you have the answer it may be time to look in your rearview mirror; you may be going the wrong way.

That may be where some, if not most, hospitals are with regard to patient satisfaction.  But, don’t feel you have to take it from me.  According to Amednews.com, “The study by Rozenblum and his colleagues said there seems to be more emphasis among health care organizations on measuring patient satisfaction rather than on improving the patient experience.” March 13, 2013.

This bears repeating…there seems to be more of an emphasis among health care organization on measuring patient satisfaction rather than on improving the patient experience.

Stack all the reports your organization has purchased concerning patient experience data.  Those reports show your hospital’s scores, how your hospital compares to other hospitals, means, averages, standard deviations, and the square root of the hypotenuse.  Now, next to the stack of reports, stack all of the money your hospital has saved by implementing what it has learned from the reports.

I’m sorry, can you speak up?  Oh, you said you have not saved any money.  Well, let’s try another tactic.  Let’s have dinner for every patient that the experience data helped the hospital retain plus all of the new patients referred based on the things learned from the patient experience data.

J’ai mangé seul.  That is French for ‘I ate alone’.

9% of Hospitals Have a Patient Satisfaction Plan

The phone rang last fall. It was the school nurse asking me if I would pick up my seven year-old son. When I inquired as to the reason she informed me he delivered an organ recital—a long-winded recitation of ones ailments—the classic symptoms of the crud; tummy-ache, non-responsive, crying. She’s the nurse, so without better information, who was I to question her diagnosis?

We got into the car and his tears started flowing. “Do you feel like you’re going to be sick?” I asked as I looked at the leather upholstery. He didn’t answer me other than to whimper. He didn’t seem sick at breakfast. I remembered that he was crying last night, but his tears had nothing to do with his stomach. While he was crying he was hugging his favorite dog, our five year-old Bichon.

We had just learned that the Bichon was very ill and will never be a six year-old Bichon. The person having the most difficulty with the news is my youngest. I asked him if that was why he was crying in class and he confirmed it was. Dads know everything, at least some times.

So, here’s the deal. The school nurse had done all the right things to diagnose my son’s problem, but she stopped short of determining what was wrong. Let’s try a more relevant situation from the perspective of patients and what they think of their interaction with the hospital. 

A survey of 1,004 physicians and nurses in four countries found that 90.4% said improving satisfaction of patients during hospitalization was achievable. But only 9.2% said their department had a structured plan to boost patient satisfaction, March BMJ Quality and Safety.

What does the hospital know about what their patients think about them?  Has anyone ever asked of a patient, “What do you expect from us throughout your experience?”

At minimum patients expect that when they call the hospital they will receive a correct answer to any question they ask one hundred percent of the time.  At minimum patients expect that when they go to the hospital’s website they will find what they need or accomplish a given task one hundred percent of the time.

Does that happen?

Didn’t think so.  Planning to meet expectations without knowing what they are is a lot like playing on the tail on the donkey; blindfolded, spun around, and set off to hit the target.  Failing to plan for patient satisfaction is planning to fail at satisfying patients.

Hospitals are spending a lot of money and losing a lot of patients by trying to diagnose their patient satisfaction problems.  The problem is they quit diagnosing the problem before they find the answer.  To make matters worse, very few hospitals are even looking in the right place.

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