Is a Patient Experience Officer Right for Your Organization?

Jim Higgins, Founder & CEO of Solutionreach

Health systems should ask two questions before deciding if they need a patient experience officer, one expert suggests.

As value-based care initiatives encourage health systems to raise patient satisfaction and outcomes, many executives wonder whether hiring a patient experience officer or patient relations officer makes sense. The short answer is likely yes.

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all role for patient experience. Each facility and patient population is unique. For example, a children’s hospital often supports parents who are caring for their children. Their communication needs and preferences will be different than those of, say, millennial men receiving care at an orthopedic practice.

Thus, each health system must examine its unique environment to maximize the impact of a patient experience officer or patient relations officer. Organizations should start by asking two key questions: Are patients leaving or are they at risk of leaving?

Are Patients Leaving?

Revenue is one good place to start to understand a facility’s patient attrition rate. Compare several years’ worth of revenue in year-by-year and month-by-month comparisons. Look at new patient visits versus existing patient visits. Are there slowing trends in revenue or existing patient visits? What about specific appointment types like recall, preventive care tests like colonoscopies or vaccinations like flu shots? A steady decline in any one of these areas might indicate that patients aren’t returning.

Anecdotal evidence can be helpful as well. Ask providers and staff whether they notice patients not returning. Staff should be encouraged to offer candid feedback about patient satisfaction as they see it. Front desk staff, medical assistants and nurses might have insights that simply can’t be seen at the executive level.

After determining the number of patients who have already left, divide that number by three. Since studies show around 33% of patients leave due to a poor experience, it’s safe to assume this is the number of patients the organization has lost due to service issues and not because of insurance changes, a move or other factors.

Are Patients At Risk of Leaving?

In addition to determining how many patients have left, it’s equally important to evaluate whether more are at risk of leaving. That requires understanding patient satisfaction levels. Are patients generally satisfied with their experience? How do they feel about specific providers, services and staff? Some of the surveys used to support other initiatives — like Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems — can help track this, but they may not be enough.

Healthcare organizations should use additional surveys to gather more detailed information about why patients are unhappy. Short, concise surveys that address specific issues like appointment access or interactions with front desk staff can help identify problem areas.

Online patient reviews are also a great source of feedback. Look for “red flag” patterns, such as references to long wait times or poor customer service. Even positive reviews can have comments that indicate a patient experience problem.

For example, a three- or four-star review might talk about a great provider and then mention “but the wait time is really long.” Therefore, look at all reviews, not just the most negative ones.

Look at the Dollars and Cents

For many organizations, hiring a patient experience officer to help ensure patient satisfaction and prevent turnover adds up in terms of dollars and cents. In part, that’s because studies have shown that more and more patients switch providers because of displeasure with the service and experience.

In a Physicians Foundation survey, for example, one in three patients thinking of changing providers said their decisions were due to service issues. Other patient satisfaction surveys indicate that patients are growing frustrated with inadequate practice logistics such as communication, scheduling and wait times. In fact, according to the Advisory Board, the top complaint among patients is related to poor provider communication.

“Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure patients’ experiences are as good as their care, so they have no reason to leave,” said Kevin J. Pawl, M.S., senior director of patient access at Boston Children’s Hospital. “When people talk about their healthcare experiences, they often will start with amazing life-changing care or how their health was positively impacted. But I want us to imagine a world where the second part of the story is the amazing service and overall experience.”

Ideal Job Candidates

If one thing is clear about patient experience, it’s that it covers a lot of ground. After determining your organization’s key challenges, the ideal patient experience officer will be someone with a solid history of solving those specific challenges.

Generally, the role of a patient experience officer is to:

  • Evaluate the patient experience
  • Collaborate with other departments to improve the patient experience
  • Establish and manage patient communication programs
  • Manage online interactions with patients
  • Report and address patient feedback

Most postings for patient experience specialists ask for five to 10 years of experience in a healthcare setting. Previous experience or training in patient-facing roles or patient engagement activities is usually preferred. Although smaller practices and groups may have one person or even just a part-time person dedicated to the job, larger organizations often have a team of people engaged in building patient relationships.

Regardless, facilities can use these guidelines as a starting point for determining what makes sense for their patients and organization and begin developing job descriptions.

Jim Higgins is the founder & CEO of Solutionreach. You can follow him on Twitter: @higgs77

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