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The Problem[s] With Patient Satisfaction Surveys

Measuring patient satisfaction and quality of care has become a much talked about topic lately. Due to changes in federal law, Medicare reimbursements paid to hospitals are now tied to patient satisfaction scores. These new laws give hospitals even more incentive to improve patient satisfaction and experience – which, in theory, is a good thing. Doctors (and hospitals) should be subject to feedback and held accountable for their work. There are, however, problems with patient satisfaction surveys.

Dr. Christopher Johnson writes in a recent article that patient satisfaction surveys – as currently used – are “riddled with problems.” Dr. Johnson goes on to say, “they [surveys] don’t measure what they are suppose to measure and they can easily drive physician behavior the wrong way.” Dr. Johnson refers to his survey tools as made and facilitated by Press Ganey. Press Ganey is a massive corporation that provides hospitals and health systems full service patient experience solutions, in which Press Ganey writes, distributes, and collects the surveys and data. As such, hospitals using Press Ganey’s services essentially outsource all of their patient satisfaction and survey measurement. Dr. Johnson writes, “I’ve read the Press Ganey forms and the questions they ask are all very reasonable.” This quote raises a red flag that perhaps Dr. Johnson misses: Dr. Johnson is not, nor is anyone at his organization, writing the questions on their patient satisfaction surveys. It makes the most sense for those who are trying to benefit from collecting their own patients’ data to write their own surveys. Those closest to the patients and those working in the hospital are better suited to understand the different context and circumstances surrounding the measurement of patient satisfaction. Instead of a Press Ganey employee 800 miles away writing survey questions and processing the data; the doctors, nurses, and administrators should be more involved in the process of measuring quality of care. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all survey.

Dr. Johnson also speaks of the poor sample sizes used to collect the data; “[a]lthough the forms are sent out to a random sample of patients, a very non-random distribution of them are returned. Perhaps only the patients who are happy, or those who are unhappy, send them back.” This very well could be true, but it is most likely an easy fix. Again, each hospital knows (or should know) the best way to collect data from their patients. Generally, for most hospitals, the best way is with in-person paper surveys. Surveying the patient while still on site raises response rates and ensures that the sample size is more random than the one Dr. Johnson describes. Along with higher response rates, a patient’s memory of her experience is fresher when surveyed on-site and therefore the data is more accurate.

Dr. Johnson is correct in saying that patient satisfaction surveys “as currently used are riddled with problems,” but there are solutions to these problems. Understanding the quality of care provided by a doctor or a hospital or a nurse is too important to ignore or be discouraged by those obstacles. The healthcare world has been talking about measuring patient satisfaction for decades yet still have a long way to go. Getting rid of patient satisfaction surveys is not the solution. Acknowledging constructive criticism about the process and fostering open debate about improving patient satisfaction is the solution.

Is Patient Satisfaction Overrated?

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.

Is there a difference between patient satisfaction and patient experience?

If so, how should both be measured?

“Patient experience and satisfaction is the No. 1 priority for healthcare executives, according to the HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey 2013—above clinical quality, cost reduction, and many other burning issues.”

In the constantly evolving healthcare landscape, one thing is clear: delivering quality care is paramount. As the above quote suggests, patient experience and patient satisfaction are coveted key indicators of delivering quality care. The quote – from an article in HealthLeaders magazine, found here – goes on to explain why patient satisfaction and experience is the number one priority for healthcare execs:

“With the emergence and acceleration of both Medicare-approved and commercial accountable care organizations, there is a new sense of urgency for some health systems to improve their patient experience, particularly because it is one of 33 benchmarks Medicare-approved ACOs have to meet in order to qualify for the incentive payment.”

The quotes provoke a few interesting thoughts. The obvious one is that patient satisfaction and experience have never been more important. Yet, another thought begs the question: is there a difference between patient satisfaction and patient experience? Although closely related, there are certainly a few nuances differentiating the two.

Hospitals have the well-known HCAHPS – a core set of pre-determined survey questions – that they rely on to measure patient satisfaction. HCAHPS has proved successful at measuring patient satisfaction but it doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of patient experience. “Patient satisfaction and experience are closely tied together, but they are not the same,” says Press Ganey CEO, Patrick Ryan. Ryan goes on to explain:

“‘It [patient experience] is much more than just patient satisfaction,’ he says. ‘The confusion that some folks come into the industry with is that patient satisfaction is about keeping people happy, but it couldn’t be further from that because when people enter the health system, they’re coming in at one of the most complex and stressful times in their life. And what they want most from the experience is communication and understanding of what their condition is, the path to the best possible health they can achieve, and a way in which to coordinate that with their clinicians and staff to ensure that they get there.”

While HCAHPS’s standardized questions work for measuring patient satisfaction, measuring patient experience doesn’t work with one uniform set of questions. It requires multiple surveys with a variety of questions attempting to measure a variety of different topics and experiences – something that HCAHPS doesn’t do. The best way to find out if a patient is experiencing good communication from nurses and doctors or whether the patient fully understands her condition is not with a standardized 32 question survey. Those types of experiences are best measured with specific, detailed questions in the context of each situation.  “Real change begins to happen when physicians, nurses, and staff hear the voice of the customer, the voice of the patient,” Kevin Gwin – VP of communications for Ardent Health Services – is quoted saying in the article, “and you’ll have incremental improvement that turns into transformational change.”

In order for a hospital to take incremental improvement and turn it into transformational change, they must understand the difference between patient satisfaction and patient experience. Perhaps more importantly, they must understand the difference in measuring the two. In the end,  greater patient experience will translate into greater patient satisfaction which in turn will lead to a higher HCAHPS score.