HealthJune 18, 2020

What is patient satisfaction and why does it matter?

By: Andrea Eisenberg, MD

In some ways, patient satisfaction has become as important as providing good medical care. But what exactly does "patient satisfaction" mean?

When a patient comes to your office for an appointment, they enter your waiting room, interact with your receptionist, are brought to an exam room by a medical assistant or nurse, spend time in the exam room for their appointment, then perhaps go to the lab, interact with your biller and finally check out with another staff member. In the hospital, there are even more steps to a patient's interactions during their visit. All these steps factor into how satisfied patients are with their medical care.

What is patient satisfaction?

Patient satisfaction is a measure of how happy a patient is with their healthcare. Although “patient satisfaction” and “patient experience” are sometimes used interchangeably, they're actually two separate concepts. A patient's experience is based on what should happen during their appointment and whether that actually occurred, whereas patient satisfaction is based on whether a patient's expectations of what should happen were met. In other words, we need to address a patient's expectations as well as providing a medically sound experience.

Why should it matter whether patients are satisfied as long as we're giving good medical care? The simple answer is that it can lead to patient loyalty, better clinical outcomes, patient compliance and fewer medical malpractice suits. In practical terms, we need to see patients as “consumers” of our services, which then requires us to address issues beyond medical care.

What can affect patient satisfaction?

Every single interaction in a doctor's office or hospital can affect patient satisfaction, from how the waiting room looks to how the patient is greeted by your receptionist to what you are wearing, according to Evidence-Based Practice. But the most important element is communication, especially between the patient and physician.

Direct communication can address our patients’ expectations as well as our own expectations for how their health issue will play out. As discussed in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, for example, if you're a dermatologist, you may need to effectively communicate the chronicity of a patient's skin disorder, emphasizing that treatment is about managing the disorder, not curing it. In surgical specialties, the facts of a patient's surgical treatment and expectations for postoperative pain need to be communicated clearly. Despite a positive clinical outcome, patients who experienced a postoperative complication or moderate to severe postoperative pain are less likely to be satisfied and may regret having undergone surgery.

According to the Annals of Surgery, postoperative pain had the greatest impact on satisfaction and regret. But patient satisfaction may be affected by a range of factors, including:

  • Expectations of care
  • Communication with physician and staff
  • Responsiveness of physician and staff
  • Cleanliness
  • Pain management
  • Timeliness of phone calls, appointments and results
  • Attire

How to improve patient satisfaction

Luckily, there are many strategies we can use to improve patient satisfaction based on the above factors.

  • Set expectations: From the start, try to get to the heart of a patient's expectations by asking open-ended questions. Let them explain their concerns and what they hope their visit will accomplish. Encourage them to share in the decision-making process and be an active participant in their care.
  • Emphasize communication: Clearly communicate what will happen during their appointment or surgery. This also includes your staff greeting patients when they come into the office and at check-out.
  • Be responsive: Responding to patients in a kind, friendly, dignified manner is crucial. We all want to be treated with respect, and when patients are anxious and scared, this can help immensely to calm them.
  • Maintain a clean practice: This applies everywhere, from the waiting room, hallways and restrooms to exam rooms, the lab area and check-out.
  • Discuss pain management: Whether it's a chronic issue, pain management after surgery or the delivery of a baby, offer clear instructions about what to expect in terms of pain, what medications can help with the pain and how to take medications.
  • Be on time: This includes being on time for appointments or, if necessary, informing your patient that you're running late. Be sure, as well, to return phone calls and inform patients about test results in a timely manner.
  • Dress the part: Your attire should always be professional, neat and clean.

The practice of medicine has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet and social media. Patients have access to more information about us than ever, including physician rating scores. Patients are also demanding a bigger role for themselves in their healthcare. So now more than ever, addressing patient satisfaction in your practice is a critical piece of patient care.

Want to learn more about patient satisfaction? Read:

Andrea Eisenberg, MD
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