Patient Experience – A Delicate Balancing of Science and Art

With the emergence of HCAHPS in the US and similar measures in other countries and the financial implications now associated with these scores such as under Value Based Purchasing and the Excellent Care for All Act in Canada, efforts to address patient experience are at an all time high. Surveys such as the Institute’s Benchmarking Study now show patient experience to be a top priority for healthcare leaders. It seems these new regulatory pressures have heightened awareness, increased executive support and created a burning platform for action.

This elevation in attention has also presented a challenge. With new regulations, especially those tied to financial reward, arises the need to perform to the test. Our research has shown that US hospital’s priorities aligned often with the very domains being asked in the HCAHPS survey, from reducing noise to providing proper discharge instructions. These are not bad things on which to focus, but by simply focusing improvement on the questions themselves, the ‘science’ of patient experience, we miss the foundation, the culture (the ‘art’) on which to build.

In some ways addressing the questions is easy. We can measure our quietness at night and we can time ourselves on responsiveness, but we cannot manage service elements in the same manner as core quality measures, which are truly process driven, can be tracked via checklist and easily monitored. The science of service is not that cut and dry. Instead, it relies on a delicate balancing with the culture of the organization in which it is performed.

John Kotter and James Heskett (1992) have a nice way of framing culture in the workplace at two levels, the deeper level of shared values and the visible level of shared behaviors. This is the art of patient experience. We cannot create a checklist to ensure a shared base of values or behaviors exist, but without them the performance of the items being measured is at risk. We are presented with a need for delicate balancing – a measure set to manage what we are being evaluated (and paid) on and a culture on which our performance relies.

Through my On the Road visits and other discussions with healthcare leaders I have been privy to hearing about this delicate balancing first hand. The organizations that perform well in scores are doing more than teaching to the test or focusing on scores. Our paper The Four Cornerstones of Patient Experience helped frame the importance of a dedicated role and organizational focus in driving better outcomes (a clear blending of art and science) and my visits to leading performers have reinforced this message. For example at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital they insisted that you can try all the service tactics you want, but you first need a strong culture on which to build and at Medical Center of Arlington they helped us see that it is about aligning leadership and people, establishing clear expectations and living to them at all levels that was the foundation of their success.

The challenge is clear (and perhaps daunting); that true success in patient experience comes from our ability to manage the balancing of the science and the art. I say “balancing” as this effort is in constant movement, from a focus on measures to a focus on culture. There is not one perfect spot to stand, but sustained success comes from our ability to acknowledge the impact that both measures and culture have on providing the best experience for our patients overall. Here is to effective balancing!

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