Blog | Friday, November 28, 2014

Replacing the term patient satisfaction with something more meaningful

As the patient satisfaction movement races full steam ahead, the time is perfect to regroup and define what this whole thing is really all about. Anyone involved in health care, and particularly hospital care, knows that the term “patient satisfaction” has become a buzz phrase recently. Sadly, too, it’s also evolved into a bit of a bumper sticker in hospital administration circles—more about answers to lengthy questionnaires and some rather tacky gimmicks than about getting the real fundamentals of health care right.

Personally I’m not a particularly big fan of the term either. Hospitals and health care are inherently very different from hotels and restaurants which practice the mantra to its extreme—relying on the fact that the “customer is always right”. But unlike these customer service arenas, the goal in health care isn’t really to “satisfy” our customers. To draw an example (not necessarily an exact equivalent) the goal of an educational institute isn’t to satisfy students. The goal of a sports coach isn’t to satisfy the athlete. The goal of your attorney isn’t to satisfy you. It is to get the best results. To an extent, the 2 can go hand in hand, but results and satisfaction are not always synonymous in health care.

The real mission of health care is to get our patients better by offering high quality clinical care in the best possible environment. This environment should be one where patients get to spend maximum time with doctors and nurses, patients feel fully empowered and informed in the decision making process, and are treated with the utmost respect and dignity the whole time.

Being sick is a miserable time. Our interactions with patients in the hospital will often be at the absolute lowest point in their lives. Illness and hospitals are scary and intimidating. Easy to forget when you work in the hospital every day. No amount of TV channels, gourmet food or glossy painted walls can change that. What we can do however is strive to make things less horrible. We can make people comfortable and less scared. We can reassure and give our patients all the compassion we can offer.

I once talked to an information technology entrepreneur who was getting involved in health care. During our discussion he told me that his company’s goal was “ultimate patient satisfaction.” The gentleman seemed sincere enough and thought that I would be impressed with his company when he said this. Aside from the fact that information technology will never be the main reason that people remember a good clinical interaction, I found it interesting that the term is now being used by other sectors as a way to gain traction within health care.

This obsession with “patient satisfaction” should be ditched for one that instead focuses exclusively on improving the health care experience and raising the quality of clinical care. For all the research, focus groups and administrative wrangling, the solutions are really not rocket science. Once we get the fundamentals right, namely practice good and thorough medicine in a compassionate and healing environment, the rest will take care of itself. Health care will not even need any satisfaction surveys once we achieve this.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.