Practice report cards: What patients really look at

Summer is finally here! But in the midst of trading backpacks for beach bags, many of us engage in another late-June tradition: scrutinizing report cards.

I don't know about you, but the items schools measure and "grades" to achieve changed a lot since I rode a yellow bus. My generation's "M" for "meritorious" is now a "4" for "independently applying skills with accuracy." Elementary student "citizenship" is now comprised of several elements, such as, "Contributes to a positive learning environment."

But as much as the metrics evolved, the way parents evaluate success is largely the same. We look at:

  • Trends. What areas have improved or gotten worse? Has a decline in one subject been gradual or sudden?

  • Outliers. What areas are particularly strong or weak?

  • Comments. What other information does the teacher want you to know? Does this insight help explain any of the quantitative marks?

It doesn't matter if you know your child's competency in reading or behavior around friends at home is wildly different than that of the person described in his or her report card. For better or worse, the educator's perception is reality.

These are important points to keep in mind as we consider the various forms of report cards issued to medical practices today, including but not limited to online reviews, satisfaction surveys, resource-use reports, payer tiers, quality metrics and even ratings from Consumer Reports. The instruments constantly change, but the way payers (similar to college admissions officers) and consumers (kind of like parents) process the information is more predictable.

For the most part, payers will incentivize strong quantitative performance. While physicians tell me they find it unfair that health plans don't look more closely at trends or the context of where certain numbers come from, the current evaluation process is by nature black and white. Just as there is a cutoff for what grade point average a university will even accept an application, quality bonuses are based on numbers you are either above or below. Because of these factors, most physicians I talked to say they do their best to perform well in this arena, but take such assessments with a grain of salt.

You have a tad more control in patient feedback. As FiercePracticeManagement reported this week, healthcare consumers in my home state of Massachusetts can now use Healthcare Compass MA to search for physician practices in their area and compare their ratings side by side. I played around with the site a bit, both by looking up the names of practices I'm familiar with and comparing random offices within my zip code. For the most part, I didn't come across any stark differences in the mostly patient-reported service ratings. The clinical quality information varied a little more, but not enough to pose a deal breaker for the practices I checked.

To me, the most meaningful piece of information--all else being roughly equal or just "noise"--was the percentage of patients who would recommend the practice to others. Most of the practices I looked up got 90 percent or higher. But the one that only got 80? Even not looking at any other information, that practice would go to the bottom of my list if I were searching for a new one.

Just like the comments on a report card are what really matter to a lot of parents, that one statistic tells the biggest story to patients. The good news is that every day, your practice has the opportunity to give patients an experience they would recommend to others. In this case, the little anomalies come out in the wash and the entire context of what you do for patients, day in and day out, gets averaged into a round, easy to understand number.

Do you treat patients like valued customers? Do your physicians truly listen to what they have to say? When days don't run as smoothly as they could, do your employees handle it with professionalism? At the end of the day, why would you recommend your practice to others, and how can you do even better tomorrow? If you ask yourself these questions and diligently act on the answers, you won't just have a high percentage of patients saying they'd recommend your practice to others, they'll actually do it. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)