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How to think like a patient: An executive Q&A with Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager at NRC Health

This article can also be viewed on Becker’s Hospital Review website.


Care encounters are some of the most complex transactions in our economy. A single episode of care involves dozens of individual touchpoints with the consumer—during, pre- and post-encounter. When leaders want to improve the consumer experience, this complexity puts them in a quandary: Where best to devote their efforts?

In this executive Q & A, Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager at NRC Health, offers insight on how industry leaders can better understand their customers’ wants and needs—and explores some strategies for health systems looking to make a material impact.

What makes improving the patient experience such a challenge?

Fundamentally, we’re challenged by the realization that the consumer experience is far more broad than the historic view of the patient experience. Health systems need to be listening and engaging with consumers well before and after a care encounter, as well as during it, to understand where consumer expectation becomes demand. Identifying those demands can pose a considerable challenge.

Healthcare leaders have an understandable response to the issue. We bring our analytical acumen to bear, which yields critical insights into the patient journey. However, we would be better served by a shift in perspective: the simple recognition that all of us—even health systems’ executive leaders—are healthcare consumers too. Instead of asking, “What do consumers demand of us?” we can ask, “What would we demand from a healthcare experience?” Once we learn to think like a consumer in this way, solutions start to present themselves.

So what are most consumers thinking during their encounters?

For as long as NRC Health has been collecting data on consumers’ emotions with regard to healthcare, the single most prevalent emotion has been confusion.

For any of us who have been a patient, this is probably not a surprise. Even if you’re in a privileged position as a healthcare insider, navigating a health system is never easy; imagine the difficulty for an average consumer!

Confusion about various aspects of care—insurance, referrals, pre-approvals, post-discharge care—plays an enormous role in overall patient dissatisfaction. The opposite of confusion is clarity, and this is where we need to make major strides.

What should be the first priority for clarification?

As with first impressions, we only get one chance at making a final one. For most health systems, their final impression is often the most stressful and confusing part of the whole experience—the invoice.

Most patients are on pins and needles while they wait for their bills to arrive. They’re not privy to the back-and-forth between provider and insurer; they have no way of knowing how much they’ll have to pay. Even when the bill comes, they still might struggle to decipher it.

That makes invoices an excellent place for healthcare leaders to intervene. The use of custom research and focus groups on medical bills is a tactic under-utilized by health systems so far. Simplifying invoices, making them more readable, is a great way to bring clarity to the final touchpoint after an encounter.

What about patients who have a negative experience?

High reliability isn’t just a clinical standard—it’s also a service standard. However, despite organizations’ best efforts, service does occasionally break down. Some proportion of patients will always be unhappy with their healthcare experiences.

What may surprise healthcare leaders is how profoundly a negative experience can affect patients’ perceptions. According to NRC Health’s research, in certain cases a negative service experience can be more influential than a negative clinical outcome.

The problem is compounded by sluggish responses from health systems: 84% of customers expect resolution within two days of a service error, and to give them anything less is to invite estrangement.

It’s unrealistic to expect zero service-related issues, but the damage errors cause can be minimized with a robust service-recovery system. Health systems can take advantage of modern AI-augmented technologies like Natural Language Processing, which can identify service problems and prompt same-day outreach to unsatisfied patients.

We’ve seen that speedy resolutions have a remarkable effect on patient loyalty. In fact, patients who experience a service failure, but then also experience an appropriate resolution, are more likely to become loyal customers than if they’d never had an issue at all.

All the same, it’s probably better to prevent service issues in the first place. How can health systems do this?

Successful health systems needn’t pick and choose between these priorities. They can have robust service-recovery systems, and prevent having to use them as often, by incorporating patient and consumer input to co-design service delivery from the ground up.

Patients and consumers can offer perspectives on service modality, location, pricing and provider types, eliminating some of the guesswork from efforts like deploying a new service line. It’s priceless intelligence from some of those who know the provider best.

Perhaps more importantly, though, opening up lines of dialogue shows a profound respect for patients’ point of view. Co-designed care may be the ultimate emblem of organizations in touch with their customers’ priorities.