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.

 

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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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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Project Management’s Fatal Flaw

Today’s headlines; Paula Dean drops two pants sizes, Joe Theismann’s prostate is prostate, Joan Lunden’s mother has found a senior living center and, based on six years of research in the Pacific Northwest, graduate researchers at Chicago’s School of Anthropology have confirmed that in fact, consultants do eat their young.

Observation may be one of our best teachers, but we often ignore what can be learned from it.  Here is a real-life example that occurred to me from having watched a human interest story on the local news about neighbors banding together to try and rescue someone’s pet cat which they surmised was stuck in a tree.

Here is the observation; how many cat skeletons have you seen in trees?  What can be learned?  Maybe cats do not need rescuing.

Project management and business in general have many similarities with cats stuck in trees.  Somebody thinks there is a problem, and like good little workers, we throw resources at the problem trying to rescue it.  We establish committees, have meetings, and create reports.  We discuss the problem, we recall what happened the last time we had this type of problem, we bring in experts whose skills are particularly attuned to solving this problem, and then we attack it.

The one thing we fail to do is to validate whether the perceived problem is really a problem.  Chances are that the cat in the tree is doing just fine and does not require any help. If it does, there is always gravity.

 

When Patient Experience Management Fails-call the cable guy

(This missive is somewhat long—this is where my mind goes when I run.)

Ever watch the show “This old House”? Something magical happens to a man when he watches somebody single-handedly rebuild a 6,000 year old home in a 30 minute program. After that no task seems too complex. As a normal male the first rule of thumb is to remember that having a master’s degree from a reputable university qualifies you for about anything short of brain surgery. The true Type A will often carry that step further by reminding himself that given another week or two of study that even neurosurgery would not be that difficult.

I did a project in one of my prior homes. It involved the simple task of rearranging bedroom furniture one Sunday afternoon; 15 minute project, total cost—nothing. After all, how difficult could that be? The truth is the actual moving of furniture involved nothing more than I’d planned. Only when I thought I was done did I notice that the television set was now located a good 20 feet away from the cable television outlet. The obvious solution would be to simply move the furniture back to its original position.

Can’t do that. To move the furniture back to the original position is either admitting defeat, or admitting I wasn’t bright enough to realize that the cable outlet and the television would be on opposite ends of the planet by the time I finished. Besides, my wife had already seen the new arrangement and if I moved it back to its original position I would have to explain why.

So when she enters the room and asks why (and she will ask why—that’s her job) there is now a 25 foot piece of black coaxial cable snaking its way diagonally across her bedroom carpeting I had better be prepared to answer. Sometimes if you’re quick, real quick, you can try and bluff your way around the problem with a technical answer. You can try and explain that all of the static electricity that was created by sliding furniture across the carpet has caused the sonic membrane surrounding the fiber optical transponders in the coax to be 6 ohms off the medium allowable temperature variation for the building codes in your neighborhood. It is called stalling, allowing for a brief period of self-correction.

The truth, having failed me, the only other option left was to try something close to the truth. I’m forced to say I knew the cable would be at opposite ends of the room before I moved the furniture. My plan all along was to call the cable company and ask them to come to the house to install another outlet on the correct wall.

It’s my wife’s job to inquire how much it will cost—she did not fail me.  This is a clear case of me answering her question without bothering to think. It is important to have a clear understanding of the underlying issues before trying to resolve the problem. I mentioned it should cost forty dollars, and we will only need to leave the cable strewn across her bedroom floor for a few days. It’s then her job to say if we put the furniture back where it was we can solve both problems in twenty minutes. Besides, the cable technician left a mess the last time they did some work, and she wasn’t going to spend more money for poor service. Stay with me here, this is how it becomes her fault, and how it relates to the topic of Patient Experience Management (PEM).

Once her issues were out in the open was a simple matter to devise a solution to address them.  The solution needed to be implemented quickly and it needed to be free. My answer came quickly—too quickly. Eighty percent of the problem could be handled by simply running the cable along the floor board, and then under the bed. That only left five feet of cable between me and a happy marriage. Unfortunately, the five feet in question is from the foot of the bed to the television and runs across the major walkway of the room, looking all the while like an undernourished blacksnake.  Did I mention she hates snakes?

Undaunted, I asked for a little assistance to move the bed. This accomplished, I headed for the garage to find exactly the proper tools for the proper job. I returned five minutes later, tools in hand. I was surprised to see the look of dismay on her face. As it turns out, her dismay resulted from the razor blade knife clutched in my hand. After twenty minutes of the best Boolean logic I could muster, I convinced her, or at least myself, that it would be a simple matter to cut a small hole in the carpet and force the cable underneath. After all, the bed would hide the hole.

The only other tool I thought I would require was a roll of duct tape and a 4’11″ broom handle.  Women know we are confused about how to proceed the moment they see men rely on the duct tape gene. Most men, when cornered believe enough duct tape, properly applied, can serve as a panacea for anything up to and including world hunger.

You’ll note I specified the exact length of the broom handle. It’s only after having attempted the project that I’m able to relate the length of the handle. Most men on a project, especially those being watched by their wife, wouldn’t bother to measure a length any more than they would ask directions while driving across Borneo with half a tank of gas.

As it turns out, I should’ve measured both the distance the cable had to travel under the carpet and the length of the broom handle prior to taping the cable to the handle and shoving a 4’11″ broom handle under a five-foot expanse of wall-to-wall carpet. The fact the carpeting was wall-to-wall is key to understanding what lay ahead. Let’s make certain the situation is spelled out clearly; the new carpet in our new home had a hole in it, a broom handle was now nicely buried under the carpet, and my wife was perched on top of the bed like one of Macbeth’s three witches waiting to see what I would do next.

Walking to the wall and grasping the carpet as best I could, I pulled up a good 10 feet of it from the tacking, acting all the while like I would have to have done that even had the handle not been one inch too short. Leaning with my one arm on the newly exposed carpet tacks, I solicited help in excising the handle from beneath the rug. That accomplished, and dying the death of a thousand cuts, I looked for another proper tool to complete the task. Walking through the kitchen to the garage I spent a moment wondering if the proper tool could be found in the kitchen. Naturally, it was—one half of a pair of chopsticks or, as it’s now referred to in technical terms, a broom handle extender.

Five minutes later, the broom handle extender and cable was firmly duct taped to the broom handle and once again shoved under the carpet. They both went in, but no cable came out the other side. So, I pulled the handle back out and surveyed the situation. The situation, as it turns out, was that in my hand was a perfectly good broom handle, a piece of coaxial cable, and no broom handle extender. The extender was now smack dab in the middle of the 5 foot expanse I was trying to cross, the problem being it was on the wrong side of the carpet, the underneath side. It was positioned perfectly. It was too far under to be reached from either end. In other words, the chop stick just became a permanent fixture in our bedroom.

Certainly, one small chopstick hidden beneath four hundred square feet of carpeting was not a big problem to me. It was not a problem unless you happen to be walking barefoot across the carpet and you happen not to be the one who put it there.  It became not unlike the fable The Princes and the Pea, and my princes found it immediately. In the fable, it was the princes could not sleep. In my case, I knew the non-sleeper in the story would be me for as long as the chopstick remained under the carpet.  Keeping my eyes focused firmly on the task at hand, I foolishly believed if I could resolve the cable problem, the matter of the chopstick would resolve itself.

One final trip to the garage led me to return with a second broom handle. The peanut gallery looked on in disbelief in my ability to finish what I had started without having to sell the house at a loss before I was through. The “I told you so’s” were being thought through in most of the major dialects of the Western Hemisphere.

This had ceased to be a project—it was now a quest, no lesser than that of the Holy Grail. A mile of duct tape later, both broom handles were firmly attached to one another. Even if I destroyed every square foot of carpeting in the house, I would not lose this broom handle under the carpet.  A minute later the cable emerged exactly where it should have, on the other side of the room.  I pulled the out broom handle, attached the cable and turned on the television. Everything worked, just as I had known it would.

Standing in front of the television, admiring my work in the new room arrangement, I noticed I was now a good foot taller than when I began the project. Was this an illusion brought about by my success?  As was quickly pointed out by my princess, my enhanced stature was more attributable to the fact that all of the carpet padding that used to lie between the end of the bed and the wall was now nicely compacted into a ball.  The ball of padding was located in the same twilight zone the chopstick found, right in the middle of the walkway. Trying to correct the problem only made it worse. Each time I prodded the ball of padding with the broom handle it grew larger underfoot. Within minutes it looked as though I had managed to suck up every inch of padding from every room in the house and placed it between my wife and a good night’s sleep. Resorting to logic once again, I quickly pointed out that she should walk on it because she would no longer be bothered by feeling the chopstick underfoot.

The next day I was on the phone scheduling an appointment with the carpet installation service. The carpet installer had to pull up most of the carpeting in the bedroom to be able to reach what she had affectionately labeled Chopstick Hill. I watched him work and I learned all about carpet padding and the installation of hardwood floors. He explained it was lucky for me that he came over because our padding was not good quality padding and we would not have known that had he not pulled up the carpet. I asked him why, if we would not have known about the padding, we would want to spend $300 for new padding. Without responding, he just kept slamming his knee in the carpet installer, charging one hundred dollars for his efforts and my education.

I was so impressed with his discussion of hardwood floors I almost bought one on the spot to surprise my wife. By now, we both know she wouldn’t have appreciated the surprise. Anybody who did not want to spend forty dollars on the cable repairman would probably have a little more trouble accepting five thousand dollars for a new floor.

However, I walked around with a silent smirk on my face for days knowing had we done it my way from the start, called the cable man, we could’ve saved the hundred dollars and never put a hole in the carpet.

This is what can happen when your patients decide to bypass your customer service because of prior bad experiences they have had trying to solve a problem.  It usually comes down to process, bad process.  Processes are a lot easier to fix than disappointed patients.