At the Helm

Why 'human' experience trumps patient experience

by Thomas Cassels

"With all due respect, I don’t want 'patient-centered care' unless I’m on my back in the hospital. When I’m not critical I’m not your patient, you are my doctor."

I heard this statement in a recent consumer focus group I led for a health system in the Northeast, and it stopped me in my tracks, because it was so contrary to how most health systems are approaching the "patient experience" issue.

This focus group participant was completely right. Most people lead 99% of their lives never thinking of themselves as patients. But health care providers are so focused on how they serve people at the most vulnerable times—during acute episodes or when managing chronic illnesses—that they are failing to deliver a superior experience the rest of the time.

To win consumer loyalty in the ever more competitive market for health care, providers need to do more than transform the patient experience for people when they’re sick. Providers also need to design what I call a "human-centered consumer experience" for people when they are relatively healthy.

What's the difference between patient experience and human-centered consumer experience? Patient experience improvement strategies need to focus on how providers organize operations to maximize safety, reliability, and affordability of sick care. Human-centered consumer experience focuses on the needs and preferences of the consumer rather than an organization’s own operations, and it starts by treating the consumer like a human and not a patient. With this distinction in mind, I recommend providers take five steps.

5 ways to provide a human-centered experience

1. Recognize your patients immediately. When front desk staff recognizes a patient immediately, it sets the tone for a more human experience. The initial human experience is then amplified when the physician is knowledgeable of the patient’s medical history and reason for the visit, allowing interaction with the person and not the chart.

2. Consider the patient's mindset when communicating care plans. Our research shows that less than half of patients report the ability to understand what they’ve heard from their doctor and how to take the next steps in their care plan. This disconnect is largely a function of when and how we share critical information to a person who is likely at their most anxious and vulnerable.

Often providers communicate with a sense of urgency. However, for the patient, that sense of urgency only enhances the anxiety they are feeling. For a more human experience, the communication should reflect the physician’s empathy for the patient and his or her family, while being very clear on next steps. And to really secure that human connection, ask what the patient needs and what more you can you do to make their next steps easier to take.

3. Involve the patient’s family and support system. The patient’s family and social support system can be a valuable tool for providers, because they are the main influencers when the patient steps outside of the practice. They also happen to be very important to the patient from a personal standpoint. So not only do physicians and staff need to make the family and support team feel welcome, providers need to treat them like an extension of the patient and encourage them to stay involved. It helps ensure the patient follows the care plan, while also creating a personal connection that further enhances the overall experience.

4. Be more than available, be accessible. Having space and availability at the choice locations of your consumers are very important components to patient access—one of the most recent imperatives for a positive patient experience. But providers can’t stop there.

Providers must be accessible by patients’ standards, and patients are saying to providers: "I need to be able to reach you on my timetable; I need you to manage my needs, even more when they are complex; and I need you to serve my interests, whether I am in front of you, at home, or at another care site."

5. Don’t let administrative processes hinder a human experience. The human connection is undermined every time someone has to start from scratch at the same site of care or manage overly-complicated administrative processes. Make sure your processes are streamlined from the patient’s perspective—avoid multiple bills, duplicative forms, and technology hiccups like the patient portal being down.

Setting a system-wide strategy for the human experience

It seems like everyone in health care agrees that the patient experience needs a facelift. But my challenge to health system and practice leaders is to chase a distinctive patient experience and a human-centered consumer experience.

You can start by asking yourself and your fellow leaders these three questions:

  • What consumer segments are most important to our organization’s future, and how well do we understand them?
  • What elements of our operating model make us distinctively attractive or particularly vulnerable from an accessibility, navigability, and service perspective?
  • What capabilities do we have today, and what will we need to acquire, to become a distinctively fine choice for the consumer segments we choose to serve?

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