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Ease is the new experience: Why making care easy will keep patients coming back

This article was published in the July issue of Becker’s Hospital Review.


Your hold on your customers might be less secure than you think.

Many healthcare leaders take pride in their organizations’ exceptional care, and believe that the care experiences they provide form, in turn, a lasting bond between patient and institution. They might think — or hope — that patients rarely leave a provider that they like.

Of course, it’s important to deliver an outstanding care experience. But research from MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Ohio, and NRC Health suggests that a great experience is not enough to keep patients coming back. The threshold for patient loyalty is, in fact, startlingly low: 80 percent of patients in an NRC Health survey reported that “convenience factors” would be enough to make them switch.

For an average hospital, the cost of losing just one patient comes to $1.4 million over the patient’s lifetime. Getting convenience wrong, then, threatens a health system’s margin — which, in turn, could seriously hamper its ability to serve its patients.

What exactly is meant by “convenience factors?” Certainly, thoughts around access to care and wait times come to mind, but it may also help to reframe convenience in another way. Sara Laskey, MD, chief experience officer at MetroHealth, found a way to simplify the subject. When discussing service issues with her staff, she asks them, “What did you do to make things easier for your patient?”

Dr. Laskey’s question is penetrating and powerful. And the problem of ease is both important and urgent in today’s healthcare marketplace. But if leaders act now, they can create a more effortless experience for their patients, and thereby secure enduring loyalty.

First, health system executives need to see why their organization may be overlooking ease and identify the obstacles that prevent them from creating it. Then, they need to take steps to modernize their organization’s offerings and bring the degree of convenience into line with what customers expect.

The root of the problem

The advent of CAHPS surveys motivated a single-minded approach to improving the care encounter. Healthcare organizations rightly prioritized making sure that patients felt well cared for once they stepped past the hospital doors, and satisfaction and quality rose in step with that priority. The CAHPS model has therefore brought about a certain level of success.

But experiences parallel to the encounter have not shown the same improvement. Hospital websites, check-in procedures, the acquisition of appointments and post-discharge follow-up have lagged behind the curve. This is borne out by a study Dr. Laskey’s experience team performed at MetroHealth. Almost universally, surveyed patients reported very high levels of satisfaction from the moment they stepped into the exam room — but aggravation and confusion just about everywhere else.

As Dr. Laskey put it, “We now have data to show that we can’t ignore factors external to encounters with providers. We can’t ignore how hard it can be for patients to understand their care.”

This will not come as a surprise to leaders who have been watching consumer trends. The rise of retail clinics, new calls for clarity in billing, and mounting frustration with wait-times have all signaled the rise in patient demand for ease in healthcare.

However, most healthcare organizations have so far missed the message. They have not yet identified what effort means to their customers, nor have they prioritized creating a more effortless experience within their own care systems.

So what should healthcare leaders do?

Architecting the effortless experience

The solution is threefold.

  1. First, taking a cue from Dr. Laskey, health systems should come to a thorough understanding of their patient’s journey of care.

Often, this entails a broadening of perspective. It’s critical to see every interaction a patient has with a health system’s brand — not just what happens in the exam room.

An experience map can be an enormously useful tool for identifying points of friction. Once these trouble spots have been pinpointed, healthcare systems will know where to direct further investigation.

  1. If breadth informs the first step, the second step demands depth.

Journey maps will reveal where problems occur, but it’s just as important to know why. For this, there’s no substitute for in-depth feedback from patients.

However, conventional feedback mechanisms will not reveal everything health systems need to know. Most surveys — or at least those that are short and customer-centric enough to yield a sufficient number of responses — do not drill down to the level of detail required. Open-ended questions are required to elicit the responses that health systems need. These, coupled with natural language processing, sentiment analysis, and pattern or theme recognition, will illuminate the specific concerns that patients have about a system’s service.

  1. Finally, with this new intelligence in hand, health systems can transform their services with ease in mind.

This could mean adopting platforms and services that improve the organization’s digital interface. Or it could mean making a concerted effort to build simpler transitions or “handoffs” into the clinical encounter. It could even mean helping patients manage their own transition out of the hospital, as this is one of the most stressful parts of the entire patient journey.

Whichever solution your system needs, Dr. Laskey underscores how important it is to emphasize ease in your communication with staff. “I always ask them, ‘What’s one thing you can do today that will make care easier for your patients?'” she says.

Clinicians — and entire organizations — will do well to bear that question in mind.

If you’d like more insight on the problem of effortlessness in healthcare, download the free expanded white paper here.