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The Changing Role of the Patient

By Jef Williams

The role of the patient in health care is changing. What was once considered a unidirectional experience (the doctor runs the show) has become a consumer-driven model.

Whether we are considering patient satisfaction scores, measuring patient leakage or using analytics to assess throughput and outcomes, it’s clear that health care is performance based and the consumer is becoming the central character in the narrative.

While there are still very important issues related to physician workload, technology costs and reimbursement models, much of what drives the conversation with executives is patient satisfaction and the accompanying retention. Defining the role of the patient is having a significant impact on decisions related to care delivery, technology investment and operational models.

Patient Experience

Much has been written over the years about the Starbucks success story. It’s widely accepted that its rise to preeminence in caffeine products had less to do with the coffee itself and more to do with the customer experience. Providing people the ability to walk into a coffee shop that elevated their morning experience (from décor to customer service) as well as create a variety of options allowed the company to grow exponentially. And while health care has a much different problem statement, there are lessons associated with giving patients the ability to control their experience. There remain too many experiential downsides including paper forms, long wait times, confusing bills, labyrinthian corridors and, in many cases, travel hurdles. Some hospitals and physician groups have revamped their models to make access and experience simpler. There remains much room for improvement. And until the patient gets a voice in the executive decision-making, we will continue to overlook even the simplest of solutions to improve.

Scheduling & Access

Most of us are using apps for nearly everything in our lives. We book hair appointments, dinner reservations and travel without ever interacting with a person. Yet in health care even the simplest of appointments require phone calls and calendar analysis in real time. It’s time health care improves its patient portals to allow for the common access needs (imaging, primary care, urgent care) to be managed electronically. Sure, there are plenty of procedures that are complex and require a consult or advice, but as with most problems there is an 80/20 rule at play. Let’s stop using human resources to manage calendar appointments and making patients find a quiet and private place to make a call and negotiate a simple visit. The EHR is there to improve care and it holds nearly all of the information required to automate scheduling and access. It’s time to leverage this warehouse of data to simplify this step.

Transparency

When was the last time you agreed to buy something on Amazon without knowing the price? When was the last time you enjoyed waiting on hold without knowing how long your wait time would be? We, as customers, no longer put up with any of these things. We can shop and compare prices for anything including electronics, auto insurance, even contractors. And when we call our airline or Internet service provider we are told how long our wait time will be and are even able to register our phone number for a callback when we present in the queue. This, unfortunately, is still a serious problem in the patient experience. Even with recent federal laws related to listing prices, there is no accommodation for when services are in-network versus out-of-network. And unless someone is willing to make multiple calls and reference multiple locations, there is no simple ability to compare prices. The current trend demonstrates large increases in co-pays which is driving more price sensitivity for patients – something that was almost a non-factor until recently.

In addition, there is very little accommodation for patient wait times. While this is easily quantifiable with many technological options to improve how patient throughput is managed, we still find most waiting rooms in hospitals, clinics and physician practices full of people with no idea whether they will be sitting for another two minutes or two hours. We can, and must, do better to advance technology in a way to accommodate the needs of patients including concern for the value of their time.

What this means for us

As influencers in the decisions that affect delivery, technology and operations, we must advocate for the needs of our patients. We certainly have deep obligations to the satisfaction of our staff and physicians, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. Many other industries have found ways to improve operations while concurrently improving the customer experience. Too often in health care we see ourselves so unique that we can’t learn the lessons others can teach. This, I believe, is one area where there is no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s time to take a serious look at how we treat our patients – beyond the care – and build strategic initiatives to make significant improvements.

Jef Williams, MBA, PMP, CIIP, is a managing partner at Paragon Consulting Partners.

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