Blog | Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Patient satisfaction / physician dissatisfaction

Have you received a survey after you visit your doctor? You may be surprised to learn that how you rate them may affect their pay, their mental health, and even possibly your health.

Surveys, as administered by Press Ganey, and the CG-CAHPS, are questions regarding various aspects of the care patients receive. Although that may seem reasonable, besides potentially incentivizing bad medicine, it's exaggerated because they only count “top box” scores. That means on a scale of 1 to 5, only the 5 scores count, so that getting a 4 is no different than getting a 1, and if the score is 0 to 10, then only a 9 or 10 count. The scores only count if you answer “Always,” except for the question, “Using any number from 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst provider possible and 10 is the best provider possible, what number would you use to rate this provider?.” In that case, only a 9 or 10 count.

I'm not sure how this rating system was developed, but I think it may have had roots in the hospitality business. A patient may stay with their doctor if they rate them as being good, as opposed to excellent, but if someone better comes along, they may change. So if you want high customer loyalty, you want to aim for excellence. Thus from the point of view of the physician, or rather the point of view of the administrator who pays the physician, one should strive for the top box scores.

In practice it's not so simple. Take the question, “In the last 12 months, when you phoned this provider's office during regular office hours, how often did you get an answer to your medical question that same day?” The only one that counts is the answer “Always.” So imagine you call 5 minutes before close to ask if you need to get lab work done before your appointment next week. Chances are for such a non-urgent question, it won't even get to the doctor to answer before the next day, assuming you didn't call on a Friday, and the doctor is in the office that day. You would be perfectly satisfied to get a call back the next day, but if you answered the question honestly, you'd mark “Usually,” which when scored, would be the same as if you marked “Never.”

Although customer satisfaction is important in the medical field, it's not the only thing that counts. I've had patients leave my practice solely because I told them things they didn't want to hear, such as they needed to stop smoking, cut back on alcohol, exercise more, and lose weight. I try to do it compassionately and offer them help, but it doesn't necessarily make patients want to give you a good score.

What's makes the system worse, is that when comparing scores, it's graded on a curve. By definition, no matter how good doctors are, there will always be some that are on the high end of the curve, and some on the low end. This in turn is used to save money by paying the people lower on the curve less.

Look at the charts above. The one on the left represents 47 individuals who were rated on something, showing their percentile rank, ranging from zero to the 100th percentile. Clearly there is a wide range in how well they did.

What about the chart on the right? Those are the same individuals showing the time in seconds they spent completing the task. There is less than a 11-second difference between the top 12 people. There is less than a 2-second difference between the person at the 49th percentile, and the one at the 85th percentile. So it should be easy to move up the percentile ranking, shouldn't it?

What do these graphs represent? The results of the 2014 Olympics Alpine Skiing Downhill Men's Final in Sochi.

What's the point? Percentile rankings are not a good measure of excellence when the differences are small. In the Olympics we care who is number one, but patients want excellent care, and don't distinguish between different doctors or institutions if they need a magnifying glass to see the difference. We all have room to improve, but it's demoralizing to be told one is in the 20th percentile. I'd much rather be told I was only 6 seconds behind the winner.

Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington. This post originally appeared on his blog, World's Best Site.