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A new benchmark for the individual experience: N=1

By Steve Jackson, President, NRC Health


 How changing your focus could lead to healthier patients, happier staff, and a stronger business

For healthcare executives, big numbers often dominate the discussion. Service volumes. Patient populations. Market share. Relative rankings. Revenues. These figures shape hospital policy, and in a highly competitive marketplace, they reveal which hospitals are falling behind and which will live to serve another day.

No one can dispute the importance of these numbers. But these figures are aggregates—the summed-up results of what happens on a much more minute scale. Paradoxically, correcting larger trends requires adjusting the littlest details. And the smallest—but most important—data point of all is the one indivisible unit of healthcare: the individual care experience.

Getting that experience right requires a shift in perspective. It requires defining a new benchmark: N=1.

An N=1 mentality means focusing on one patient, one visit, one experience at a time. It calls for depth, for a relentless pursuit of clarity. You’ll need to listen to your patients—really listen—and integrate their thoughts into your care. After all, according to NRC Health’s 2016 Market Insights Survey, “having a provider who listens to me” is the number-one thing consumers want from their care experience.

It’s a subtle shift, but it’s crucial. Your patients, staff, and business stand to gain from an emphasis on the individual, and here’s how.

 Your compassion will resonate with patients

Social media has transformed patients into savvy, vocal consumers of healthcare. Their expectations for hospitals have never been higher, and their feedback has never been so consequential.

This puts pressure on every interaction a patient has with your organization. They need to feel compassion at every step. From their first glances at your website to sober conversations with clinicians and everything in between, these moments matter to your patients. They all contribute to a “halo effect” that can dramatically influence a patient’s perception of your care.

One rude interaction with a provider can cast a shadow over the entire care experience. It can cause the patient to fixate on little flaws that most hospitals struggle with, like a messy waiting room or a confusing hall sign. They’ll be sure to mention these small faults in online reviews and on surveys.

But get those interactions right, and your organization will enjoy the patient’s loyalty. If the patient feels welcomed, listened to, and cared for, they’ll remember the experience positively. Crucially, they’ll also forgive whatever small hiccups may occur along the way.

This was the case with Sentara Medical Group. By paying careful attention to the patient experience and developing skills like active listening, providers at Sentara managed to increase patient satisfaction by 6.5%—in just one quarter.

So step into your patients’ shoes, and experience your hospital the way they would. Teach your staff to treat them as people, not “admissions” or “conditions.” That’s the essence of the N=1 approach, and it’s the best way to guarantee that the patient feels attentive empathy at every step.

This empathy won’t only improve your reputation. More importantly, an emphatic focus on the individual also leads to better health outcomes. The evidence shows that a patient-centered approach actively promotes healing.

When physicians take the time to relate to their patients as people, they come to better understand those patients’ health issues. This means that the patients need fewer diagnostic tests or referrals, and can start treatment faster. They experience a smoother recovery, and are more likely to report good emotional health two months after their incident. In turn, they have more confidence in their doctors, which makes them more compliant with discharge and treatment instructions—substantially reducing their risk for readmission.

But attending to patient preferences needn’t be restricted to in-room interactions. In fact, an N=1 mindset means helping consumers through their entire journey along the continuum of care.

Organizations should take a longitudinal perspective. This approach to care starts well before health needs arise for patients, and does not end with the episode of care. Proactively anticipating a consumer’s needs and following through with their transition home are important parts of a holistic care experience.

Your staff will rally around your mission

A provider with the right attitude can give voice to the patient’s story and give patients a sense of control over their own health. Seen this way, the care process invites dialogue, promotes mutual understanding, and helps the physician find the best means of treatment.

This is a delicate exchange that demands strong interpersonal skills and an N=1 mindset from clinicians. Medical schools have known that for years, and have shaped their curricula to reflect a stronger emphasis on individual patients.

Patients today need this from their providers—they expect a partner in managing their health. If clinicians can master an N=1 approach, they can achieve this partnership, and it will have an indisputable effect on their work performance.

And they won’t just work better; they’ll work happier, too. Personalized care leaves clinicians feeling less emotionally exhausted. When they have the opportunity to authentically engage with patients, they report less stress, less burnout, and much more satisfaction in their jobs.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Your clinical staff likely chose a career in healthcare because they felt a vocational call to help others. An N=1 mindset resonates with that call, connecting the day-to-day work of clinicians with their sense of mission and purpose.

So how can organizations achieve this mindset?

On a practical level, recruitment and staffing policies must support these efforts. Although cost controls have made lean staffing essential, it’s important not to stretch staff too thin. Clinicians can’t form personal connections with patients if they don’t have time to communicate with them. It falls on healthcare leaders to ensure reasonable workloads and create the kind of environment that enables compassionate treatment.

Clinicians, support staff, and administration should also consistently exchange thoughts and ideas. Candor and honesty in feedback—followed by action based on that feedback—will shape healthy working relationships across the entire healthcare workforce.

If properly cultivated, bonds in the workplace will also reinforce a culture of care. By supporting one another, staff members can improve morale and continuously renew a spirit of compassion for their patients.

Your business will flourish in the next era of healthcare

Every hospital needs an engaged staff to succeed. But leaders also need to observe the market and understand the emotions that drive their customers. For patients, unfortunately, one of the predominant emotions is confusion.

In many cases, patients feel bewildered by their conditions and treatment paths, and expect healthcare providers to give them clarity on these factors. But these days, they face almost as much confusion about the care process itself. They worry about communication errors, gaps in their care, financial coverage, and whether their provider is listening to them.

These are understandable concerns. Fortunately for providers, allaying them doesn’t need to be too complicated. Patients simply want to meet competent clinicians who show compassion when they communicate. Clinical staff can often give patients the peace of mind they want just by paying careful attention to their individual needs.

Consequently, attentiveness from hospital staff goes a long way toward earning patient loyalty. For any healthcare business, that’s priceless. Loyal patients will come back again and again, and they don’t just bring their own business when they do—they spread the word, too. These network effects are crucial for the financial health of your organization.

What could an N=1 mindset do for your organization?

An N=1 mindset is a commitment to your patients, your staff, and your facility. It’s the effort, reaffirmed every day, to make every patient feel cared for, every time they visit.

The right technical tools can help you transition to an N=1 state of care. But more important is the culture shift across your entire organization that such a state implies. Authentic, compassionate service for your patients starts with an unwavering focus on the individual. That’s the most important commitment any provider can make, and it’s also the first step in rising toward a new paradigm of care—toward genuine human understanding.