Patient experience is as much about the patient, as it is the experience!

My experiences over the last few weeks have challenged me to consider a critical contextto the work we do in addressing the patient experience. Most importantly that we need to recognize that patient experience is truly two distinct words – patient and experience. I think it is easy sometimes for those of us on the healthcare front lines, and even in organizations such as The Beryl Institute, to turn our attention to the latter term, experience. Our efforts, processes and programs are aimed at issues such as reducing noise and responsiveness, cleanliness or post discharge, all of which are critical to providing a better experience for our patients…but in working so hard on experience itself, do we at times run the risk of overlooking the first term, the patient?

I had the privilege of addressing the Maine Hospital Association Summer Forum and while there heard from Tiffany Christensen – a provocative speaker from the patient’s perspective and a recipient of double lung transplants as a result of being born with cystic fibrosis. Tiffany reminded me that the patient is not simply the recipient of an experience we in healthcare provide, but rather the patient is a vital member of the healthcare team. We can catalyze the patient experience by ensuring the voice of the patient is involved in all we do and how we do it.  If we simply remember, as Tiffany so eloquently offered, that we are truly “humans treating humans”, perhaps we ensure that the experiences we provide are more than business decisions; they are life decisions that provide for an inclusive, caring and positive experience.

Tiffany’s words stuck with me as I had the chance to hear more from the patient and family perspective at the Avatar International 2011 Symposium. While Avatar is an organization focused on providing survey data, they are clear in their commitment to placing priority on “Patient One”. Regina Holliday, a healthcare activist and patient family member, offered the story of how the patient journey sometimes takes place well beyond the attempts we make to provide a great experience.  She challenged the audience by suggesting we sometimes forget the most basic question in providing care, what would the patient want? She also urged us to think less about rating scales, such as that for levels of pain, based on “smiley faces” and instead consider the very faces of the patients we serve to guide our actions. Regina’s story again reinforced the powerful context at the core of patient experience – we are truly humans treating humans.

If we use that as a central premise in what we do, we then must ask ourselves, who is our “patient one”?  Who is that one individual or what was that one experience we have had as healthcare providers that shaped the way we want to provide care?  What is the true experience we want to create as a result? What will we never let happen again or ensure always takes place as a result of this example?  And then…how do we use that experience to shape what we do in ensuring the best patient experience possible?

My journey over the last few weeks helped me to get very clear that patient experience is as much about the WHO, as it is the WHAT.  If we choose to start with what we do, we may miss providing the experience our patients truly need and as a result, we may fall short in achieving the performance outcomes or scores we hope to realize.

Every patient (and their family/support network) has a story. They are a life lived, a road travelled and a hope held. A great example of putting this story to work is our recent case study from CGH Medical Center on the Living History Program©. Patients are interviewed and a one-page life story is created. It is presented to the patient and their family as a gift; a copy is posted in the patient’s room, while another is filed in the medical record. Every caregiver is asked to read the story and find ways to improve their connectivity with the patient and the family. This truly represents making the experience about the patient first.

To achieve true excellence in patient experience requires a willingness to address both components equally. Beyond simply implementing the best processes or programs for a positive experience, we must ensure the patient is not just the focus, but an active part of all we do.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Beryl Institute