3 patient experience mistakes and how to fix them

For office-based physicians, "patient experience" is no longer just a buzz word. Pilot programs already exist in which physician survey scores impact their compensation; and by 2017 Medicare's value-based modifier program will affect all participating providers, noted Meryl Luallin, a consultant and professional mystery patient with the SullivanLuallin Group, at this year's Medical Group Management Association conference in San Diego.

Luallin's presentation, "Move the needle up! How great patient experiences can earn big payer bonuses," not only advised on how physicians can focus their efforts to boost their scores, but also explained how to correct three common mistakes:

Addressing people improperly (or not at all). As a rule of thumb, Luallin tells practice employees to address patients younger than they are by their first names, and by their last names if they're older. Or, staffers can simply ask patients what they prefer to be called. And although many practices have been under the belief that they could not call patients in the waiting room by their last names or first/last names under HIPAA, Luallin said that's a misconception. What you can't do, she said, is call out something along the lines of, "Mary Jones, it's time to come in to see Dr. Smith about your hemorrhoids," because that would reveal protected health information. A person's name, on the other hand, is not health information, she said.

In a related point, Luallin reminded the audience about the importance of having employees introduce themselves to patients, as well as wear name badges where they are easily seen (e.g., not clipped to the bottom hem of one's shirt).

Asking patients if they understand. As we discussed previously, patients' poor health literacy can have dangerous consequences. However, simply asking a patient, "Do you understand?" is unlikely to get a meaningful response, Luallin said. Instead, she recommended asking the patient a question such as, "What do you think of this plan?" or "What problems do you think you might have in following this plan?" Finally, a more discreet way to employ the "teach back" method of having a patient repeat your instructions back to you is to ask, "What will you tell [name of spouse or caregiver] about this information when you get home?"

Saying, "Have a good day." In most settings, this is a polite and friendly parting phrase. But in a medical office, you never know if someone is exiting the building with a scary diagnosis or other bad news. Saying "have a good day" to someone who just learned he or she has cancer, for example, will likely only make the person feel worse, Luallin said. The more appropriate phrase to say to all patients as they leave is to "take care," she said.

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