Hospital Impact: For a better patient experience, focus on the outcomes that matter most

The concept of patient satisfaction has been evolving for the past three decades. While clinical excellence has always been the goal of care delivery, ascertaining how patients felt about their care was often an afterthought.

In fact, the concept of patient satisfaction was discussed inconsistently until about 10 years ago when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began publishing patient experience scores on its Hospital Compare website. Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the agency began to link payments for hospital care to patient satisfaction scores. Suddenly, healthcare providers started scrambling to "make patients happy." They talked about smiling, delivering warm greetings and closing curtains for privacy. While those are all important elements of compassionate care, they reflect just a fraction of the patient experience.

As a nurse for more than 30 years, a breast cancer survivor and the family member of a critically injured police officer, I know that patient-centered care is about the totality of a patient's care experience. Clinical excellence is still mandatory, but an exceptional patient experience goes beyond that, and it does not depend on parking, wait times or the food, although all of these matter.

A great patient experience connects clinical excellence with outcomes. It connects efficiency, quality, behaviors and mission with caregiver experience and engagement. The patient experience relies on teamwork, communication, shared decision making, empathy, compassion and human connection. It is also influenced by dignity, respect and humanistic values, as well as the ability and willingness of clinicians to relate to their patients as people, not as a medical condition or a room number.

Moreover, delivering on the patient experience is not solely about attaining a certain score or a percentile rank. Measuring and evaluating patient experience scores are means of determining if healthcare organizations and providers are on the right track, much like grades in school. No one ever majored in earning an A. The grade simply provides information about progress toward achieving a goal.

When organizations focus too intently on superficial aspects of the patient experience like parking or food options at the expense of more meaningful aspects of the overall care experience, their patients will provide a superficial response that will not reflect how well their needs are being met and how well the organization understands the totality of the experience.

In contrast, Press Ganey research shows that organizations that focus on providing highly reliable, positive patient experiences have lower readmission rates, lower lengths of stay, fewer hospital-acquired conditions (such as bloodstream infections) and fewer serious safety events.

Keeping the human side of healthcare at the forefront of our consciousness when considering improvement strategies is essential for achieving meaningful and sustainable changes in care delivery. When we focus on the outcomes that truly matter to patients and provide the professionals who care for them with the support and tools to improve those outcomes, patient experience metrics improve as a natural consequence.

Christina Dempsey, MSN, MBA, CNOR, CENP, FAAN, is senior vice president and chief nursing officer for Press Ganey Associates Inc.