Expectations are powerful. They influence what we see, how we act, and the way we react. They stir emotions and create real feelings from joy to anger, surprise to sadness. The reality of expectations is that they present an intriguing paradox in how they can and do influence the situations in which we find ourselves. Expectations are an individual and even very personal experience, yet at the same time they can be set by organizations, businesses and other people outside of one’s self. This makes expectation potentially the most valuable and perhaps most precarious tool in the discussion of consumer experience and in healthcare, the patient experience.
The example of how personal expectations can modify the perception of reality has long been part of the healthcare world. As Chris Berdik notes in his new book, Mind over Mind, the power of expectations lies at the center of the placebo effect. Berdik makes a compelling case that what we expect from the world changes how we experience it. He notes that research into placebos is expanding to examine everything that affects a patient’s expectations for treatment, including how caregivers talk and act and even the impact of the wealth of online information now available – and how those expectations can help or hinder healing. I believe the same is true as we look at the overall healthcare experience. Patients and families come with personal expectations and more often with ones that healthcare organizations worked to create. It is these very expectations that impact how individuals experience an organization and ultimately rate its performance overall.
I can share a non-healthcare example of this from just this past week. My wife and I had the chance to take a few days away for the holidays at a small inn near our home. We had heard great things about the service and quality of the experience and were excited by some of the extra amenities they offered. When we arrived we discovered our room was the only one missing the special amenities they touted in their promotions, and while the service was impeccable, this missed expectation had already impacted our experience. The hotel did all they could to accommodate and provide service recovery for our experience. To an extent they even exceeded what we would have anticipated in response, but it was the missed expectation that still lingered for us as guests.
Now imagine in the healthcare setting where our patients and families come with their own set of anticipations and clear expectations. Most do not choose to visit, but rather are dealing with illness or other issues that may be cause for great concern and even fear. They come with expectations of how they will be treated, but even more significantly they come to your doors with the expectations your organization has set through the stories shared and the messages disseminated via advertising or other means.
I saw an example of this at a recent hospital I visited. They were so proud of their new facilities, including new amenities, private rooms, etc. The advertisements and billboards they produced promoted the newness of the hospital. Yet, they still also had an older wing, where the rooms were dated, semi-private and lacked the sparkle and shine of the newer rooms. While the patient experience of the facility was not designed to be about the physical nature of the buildings, but rather the encounter people have with staff, they set the expectations publically that the facility itself was at the heart of their overall experience. In essence, they set expectations they could not always fulfill…and it set up the potential for disappointment before they even had the chance to make an impact.
The lesson here is simple, yet significant and one I think is critical to looking at the year ahead. For as much as we can control our efforts in healthcare, we must work to set the best and most realistic expectations we can for our patients and families. This is not what I have heard some describe as lowering expectations to outperform, but rather it is about setting the right expectations for what you want to deliver in your own organization and ensuring the means – both in resources and process – to deliver on it.
In maintaining a focus on providing a positive patient experience, consider starting the year by identifying the expectations you hope to deliver, ensuring your leadership and staff are aware of these touted expectations and establish a process to check your performance to these expectations at every point in the care experience. While you cannot dictate every expectation people bring with them to your doors, healthcare organizations can shape their own story in a way that ensures expectations are realized and the patient experience is one that will always be remembered. Wishing you fulfilled and exceeded expectations for the year ahead!
Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D.
The Beryl Institute