A recent article on Forbes.com asked an interesting question: is patient satisfaction overrated? The question is an important one and warrants more discussion. The article (found here) uses Dr. House, the rude but extremely effective fictional doctor from the Fox television series “House,” to analogize that perhaps patient satisfaction doesn’t always equal quality health care. The author – Steven Salzberg – attempts to make the point that while Dr. House is abrasive and his patients do not have the best experience, they do receive the best care. Salzberg writes that even though large scale reforms in healthcare are pushing the importance of patient satisfaction, better patient satisfaction scores are not necessarily correlated with better care. Essentially, instead of giving patients what they want, doctors should give them what they need. Salzberg doesn’t just use the “House” analogy; he cites a study that shows higher patient satisfaction rates being tied to higher costs and higher death rates.
AutoData agrees with some of the author’s points and disagrees with others. AutoData couldn’t agree more with the premise that doctors must give their patients what they need as opposed to simply what they want. And we are not disputing the study Salzberg cites (though we’re unsure of the context and specifics of the study). However, Salzberg asserts that measuring patient satisfaction in general is the overall problem; AutoData believes the problem is in how patient satisfaction is measured.
“For patients who think a nice doctor is a good doctor, this might come as very disappointing news,” writes Salzberg. If surveys are asking patients questions like, “Was your doctor nice?” or “Did they communicate well with you?” or “Did you have a nice time?”, of course these metrics are hollow and should not be correlated with better care. But that doesn’t mean patient satisfaction doesn’t work, it means the provider of care must change how and what to measure. In other words, identify the data that will lead to better care and measure for that. Collecting data which shows that the care administered was superior will not always be the same as the data that shows the patient had a good time (AutoData discusses this in a post about the differences between patient experience and patient satisfaction here).
Salzberg also touched on the infamous standardized hospital survey, HCAHPS. He writes that Dr. House would fail this survey with flying colors, which is probably true. A one-size-fits-all, nationally standardized survey doesn’t make sense to us either. Hospitals and health clinics operate under different circumstances and contexts serving different demographics; measuring them against each other under one standardized survey is asinine. Hospitals have different objectives, goals, and ideas about delivering quality care, so why limit the ways they measure satisfaction and experience? Let the hospitals be in charge of the data they collect, ultimately it will lead to their success or their demise. The most encouraging trend AutoData has seen over the last 4 years is the consumeraztion of health care (AutoData wrote about it here). Due to advances in technology and the internet, healthcare consumers have been given a more powerful voice and as a consequence will continue to have more choices in care providers, ultimately forcing health systems to provide higher quality care. Therefore, it’s arguably more important than ever for health systems to measure patient satisfaction and experience. If the health system effectively listens to their patients through patient experience measurements, they can improve their service, advertise their superior service, and ultimately grow.
Salzberg’s article narrowly misses the point. It isn’t that patient satisfaction is overrated or unnecessary, but health systems must adapt to measure and collect the right kind of data. The right kind of data is data that will improve their care, not data that assesses whether a doctor is nice. When the right kind of data is measured and collected they can use it to persuade potential consumers to choose them as their provider of care. In that case, measuring the right kind of patient satisfaction is grossly underrated.