Creating the Optimal Patient Experience

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By Deanna Fish, MS, CPO

What Is the Patient Experience?

The patient experience is widely discussed, but rarely defined. Most patient-satisfaction surveys report on a patient's experience relative to a single encounter rather than the collective experiences of all interactions with the care provider. The patient experience represents the entire O&P care continuum and includes a range of factors that occur before, during, and after the clinical encounter(s). When approached as a comprehensive and ongoing effort that involves all experiences with the orthotic and prosthetic provider, including the provision of products and services and the patient's relationship with the clinical care team, the patient's welfare and outcomes can be greatly enhanced.

In reality, the patient's experience may begin long before he or she enters your patient care center. It may begin with an interaction in a hospital or rehabilitation facility, through the endorsement or recommendation of another allied healthcare professional, via a physician's prescription pad, or by providing a business card. How you handle these first interactions will be formative to the patient's overall experience. Other factors that color a patient's perception include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Your practice's geographic location.
  • The ease and timeliness of making an appointment.
  • Whether or not the external grounds around your patient care center are aesthetically pleasing.
  • The accessibility of your office.
  • How the patient is met and greeted by staff members.
  • The registration process.
  • The comfort, cleanliness, and decor of your office.
  • How long the patient waits to be seen.
  • The quality of care your staff provides.
  • The initial introduction to the primary clinician.
  • The evaluation and examination procedures.
  • The extent to which a patient's needs were met.
  • Information and education provided.
  • The treatment plan and follow-up appointments.

Thinking about the patient experience is not simply a new way of looking at customer service. A service might be episode- or product-specific, while the experience is ongoing. As O&P clinicians, we have the opportunity to dramatically enhance a patient's journey through our patient care center. Improving this experience should not be viewed as optional but rather as a focused commitment to creating and implementing optimal care.

Why Do We Need to Improve the Patient Experience?

The patient is the only member of the O&P care team who can report on all aspects of quality and who is present throughout the entire experience. The patient will return to a patient care center where he or she feels mutual respect and a feeling of commitment from the staff. The patient should feel as if he or she has made a connection with the staff, the patient's needs should be appropriately addressed and discussed, and his or her goals should be jointly outlined and pursued. Developing strong patient relationships can be challenging but will ultimately lead to improved compliance and outcomes.

Providing an optimal patient experience is an important part of defining your company's mission and your personal commitment as a healthcare professional. In addition to securing your place as the provider of choice in the local healthcare market, this will also allow you to attract and retain talented staff members who are also looking to enhance their professional standing in the community. Earning patient loyalty and improving on satisfaction surveys will allow your practice to thrive and instill a greater sense of pride in all team members.

What Do Patients Really Want?

The list of wants and needs is long and varied, so this article will cover a few of the most important points.

Patients want comprehensive care. This means care that is focused on the individual; care that considers personal, spiritual, cultural, and family values; care that improves the patient's ability to manage his or her health concerns; care that promotes wellness and health; care that prevents secondary complications; care that is service-oriented; and care that effectively treats acute and chronic conditions. This is just the beginning.

Patients want to be heard. Communication is the foundation of the patient-clinician relationship and should be developed during each meeting. Effective listening is more important than effective talking, as it is the only way to truly uncover the patient's real needs and goals. This communication will also help to build the patient's trust, confidence in, and value of your skills and treatment program. Every patient wants to solve an existing need, and every clinician should work to discover the specifics of that need.

Patients want to be recognized and known. Patients want to be greeted by name from staff members. Clinicians should know about the patient's medical history and purpose of the visit, but more important, clinicians should know something about the patient. What are his or her hobbies, vocation, interests, or family dynamics? Patients and their families want care, service, and the provision of products to be personalized. It is much more important to know the patient first and the disease or disability second, rather than to allow the disease or condition to overshadow the patient. The clinician's job is to understand the uniqueness of the individual and the uniqueness of his or her situation.

Patients want reliable clinical care. Patients don't want any more or any less than what they actually need. Every patient wants and deserves exceptional healthcare, and O&P clinicians must ensure that the clinical promise matches the clinical experience. For example, the initial clinical promise or plan outlines specific measurement, casting, or scanning procedures along with follow-up visits, focused orthotic or prosthetic adjustments, ongoing consultations with the physician and therapist, and a long-term commitment to obtain optimal correction, stabilization, and function. The clinician must build confidence from the very beginning. He or she must demonstrate the necessary skills and abilities, include the patient and family in the care team, proactively address all questions and concerns, and create an environment of shared decision making. Identifying and collaborating on mutual and individual goals and challenges will help to solidify the patient's commitment and improve his or her compliance. Patients require personalized problem-solving and timely follow-up support. Building this kind of human connection will create lifelong loyalty.

How Can O&P Clinicians Improve the Patient Experience?

A quality patient experience does not happen by accident. Patient care is an art in and of itself, but it can be learned and improved upon by all clinicians committed to providing a superior experience. The most valuable resource you can give your patients is the opportunity to express themselves, their needs, and their goals. O&P clinicians should focus on listening to their patients to learn more about their needs before talking with them and explaining options. A good rule of thumb is to take a second to ask and a minute to listen.

While listening is a key component to achieving the ultimate patient experience, it is just the first part of a three-part strategy. Part two focuses on engaging the patient. Always keep the patient informed of options, procedures, and potential outcomes. Clinical competence is a combination of mastering the scientific applications along with understanding the human condition. Recognizing the physical, social, and mental functioning during decision-making discussions is critical. Engaging and motivating patients in the treatment process will promote higher satisfaction and compliance.

The final part of the patient care strategy involves problem solving. Clinicians must be problem-solvers. This may sound quite simple or complex, depending on your viewpoint, but it is ultimately the most important aspect of quality patient care. Adjusting your clinical perspective from "What's the matter?" to "What matters to you?" will help to prevent or lessen patient and family anxiety. This allows clinicians the opportunity to identify, discuss, create, and deliver products and services that solve an individual's problems in the best manner possible.

What Are the Challenges? The Rewards?

In today's hectic healthcare market, it's easy to be distracted by declining reimbursements and increased overhead. Increasing paperwork, documentation requirements, long work hours, and never-ending medico-legal concerns can detract from focused patient care efforts. Regardless, every day O&P clinicians are presented with the opportunity to redefine quality and enhance each individual's personal experience.

O&P is a service industry. Coaching, mentoring, teaching, and partnering are important aspects of the clinician's daily tasks, and the O&P products that we provide support those efforts. Having satisfied customers is important. Our ability to deliver an experience that is exceptional and completely solves a person's problems will ideally result in a loyal customer who is compelled to share his or her story with others who are in need of our clinical skills and abilities.

Embracing a patient- and family-centered care philosophy will encourage care that is respectful, maximizes a patient's health, and provides the opportunity to enhance the overall patient experience. The complete continuum of the patient experience is what matters the most.

Deanna Fish, MS, CPO, is the director of orthotics at Hanger Orthopedic Group, Austin, Texas.