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In the heat of the crisis, patient experience teams are essential workers

As the COVID crisis continues to assail health systems, plunging volumes — and a decline in revenues — have forced board members and executives to consider some difficult fiscal questions.

It’s clear enough that the coronavirus is fundamentally changing the arithmetic of health system budgets. In light of this shift, what is the best allocation of scarce health system resources? What should be preserved? And what scaled back?

Because they’re not immediately involved in the direct management of the crisis, patient experience teams may seem an appropriate target for reclaiming budgetary wiggle-room. This, however, would be short-sighted.

That’s because patient experience teams remain a vital source of strategic intelligence for healthcare organizations. Always an asset, their acumen, knowledge, and training make them even more indispensable than they were before the outbreak.

Here are just three ways that they can dramatically improve an organization’s ability to navigate this pandemic.

  1. In-the-moment analysis

A crisis demands a sharp focus on the essentials. In the face of a crisis as acute as COVID-19, considerations of patient experience may seem like a nicety — an ancillary part of the work that can wait until the imminent threat is over.

However, part of the coronavirus’s challenge is its novelty. It’s an unprecedented and unpredictable public health event, with organizations constructing ad hoc systems to meet it. To make sure these approaches measure up to the moment, leaders need all the data they can get.

That’s where patient feedback comes in. Feedback data isn’t just for adjusting health system customer service. It’s a critical part of service-line design, and a close look at what feedback reveals can yield measurable, clinically relevant results. Properly analyzed and operationalized, patient feedback can be a powerful instrument for institutional efficiency.

Through the collection and analysis of real-time patient feedback data, for example, NRC Health’s partners have variously managed to decrease wait-times, speed up ED throughput, better connect with consumers, and furnish broader insight on the issues pressing on consumers’ minds.

Who could deny the utility of these achievements for a facility beset with COVID cases? Without the institutional intelligence offered by patient experience teams, such strides would not have been possible.

  1. Crucial frontline support

Whenever they care for coronavirus patients, frontline providers put themselves at substantial physical risk. Just as important, but perhaps not as well-appreciated, is how much this crisis can undermine clinicians’ psychological well-being.

Clinician burnout has been an urgent and growing problem for some time. In the thick of a pandemic, it will likely only get worse. Organizations cannot afford to lose staff members to burnout, or to see their performance suffer under duress. They should therefore take every available step to defend the emotional wellness of their workforce.

Patient experience teams can help here, in several important ways.

First, their analytic skills. With the same tools they use to explore patient sentiment, experience teams can ‘take the temperature’ of care teams. They can measure engagement — or a lack thereof — and  identify signs of strain before they become debilitating.

They can also be a vital conduit for providers’ thoughts, giving leaders a chance to see and resolve problematic patterns in workflow or employee policy.

Beyond merely identifying problems, patient experience teams can assist with important non-clinical tasks. They can help furnish meals, provide comfort and company for ailing patients, and assist with spiritual support, when appropriate.

Perhaps most importantly, experience teams also offer a potent means of intervention against burnout — in the form of positive patient feedback.

Though no intervention can completely insulate providers from the stresses of COVID-19 care, leaders should not underestimate the power of praise and recognition.

Authentic, positive patient comments deeply resonate with providers. They can be crucial for preserving morale. And nobody is better prepared to analyze, sample, and deliver these comments than health systems’ patient experience teams.

  1. Strategy at the end of the tunnel

COVID-19, too, will pass.

When the worst is over and the dust has settled, healthcare leaders will want to take stock of what happened. They will want to assess how their organization performed, what could have been improved, and how to build deeper resilience into their systems.

Finding coherence in the aftermath of COVID won’t be easy. But patient experience teams are ideally suited for the shift from crisis management to crisis assessment.

Their analysis of longitudinal patient experience data, for instance, will prove invaluable for understanding organizational performance. This rich source of information will show when and where customers felt protected and cared for, and when they felt at risk.

Though this data should not be used punitively, it can help leaders take stock of the innovations their system produced during the crisis. They’ll be able to see what worked, and what did not, enabling them to re-shape their organizational approach to care. When the next crisis comes, in other words, experience data ensures that organizations will be prepared.

Almost as important as understanding performance, however, is understanding perception. Which is why external market research will be of crucial importance as organizations find their feet after the epidemic.

By taking the pulse of the broader community, health systems will understand what kind of impression they’ve made with the public. This will help them to design communication strategies to maintain their credibility, and to combat any misinformation that may arise.

Just the start

This catalogue of an experience team’s capacities makes a strong case for retaining them. But it is by no means exhaustive.

The utility of healthcare customer intelligence has a reach and scope that touches on nearly every aspect of health system operations. That’s true in normal times, and it’s even more true now. Though healthcare leaders are facing some difficult questions, there can be no doubt that those questions would be even more trying without the talents and insights of their patient experience teams.