Navigating through the complex healthcare system can be an overwhelming and inconvenient task for patients and their support systems.  While healthcare operations departments are charged with making patients happy, consumers of healthcare services do not engage with providers to be “made happy” as their primary goal is to get well.  This dissonance between providers and consumers can be explored in the terms used to define what it is like to be a patient.  A narrowed focus on bridging that gap is the result of clearly identifying and categorizing how patient perceptions are shaped.  And when healthcare organizations feel what it is like to walk in their patients’ shoes, the efforts put forth to satisfy patients become consistent with what consumers really want.

Patient satisfaction measurement is a gage of how well something happened during a healthcare encounter.  Questions on a satisfaction survey will ask the patient to speak to the level of quality they received.  For example, “How well staff kept you informed”.  Patient experience measurement asks how often something did or did not happen.  These types of survey questions typically ask patients to give a frequency of an action.  For example, “How often did staff keep you informed”.  The difference is how often something happened versus the quality of what happened and separating satisfaction from experience is a crucial component of understanding, and improving upon, the patient point of view.

The CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) mandated hospital patient experience survey, HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems), mostly measures for frequency of actions.  To examine further the difference between satisfaction and experience, consider a very common component of being an inpatient – pressing the call button.  The HCAHPS questions states, “During this hospital stay, after you pressed the call button, how often did you get help as soon as you wanted it?”.  The response options are Never, Sometimes, Usually, Always or I never pressed the call button.

Many hospitals struggle with scoring well on this question because of the common misunderstanding of what it is measuring.  The usual approach to improve top box scores (the percentage of patients who answered ALWAYS) on this item is to focus only on how quickly the call bell was answered.  There are tracking mechanisms that provide data on how much time passes between the patient activating the bell and staff answering the bell to investigate what the need is.  However, this question also has a quality element which asks, “help as soon as you wanted”.  Unit staff can always answer the call bell quickly (experience), but an actual resolution to why the call bell was pressed in the first place (satisfaction) is a completely different issue through the patient lens.

When it comes to healthcare organizations providing compassionate and considerate care, which is more important: satisfaction or experience?  The answer is both!  Consistently and regularly providing high quality care and service is now the baseline expectation of patients and families – and CMS. The cards are already stacked against consumers who, in addition to needing medical assistance, are tasked with navigating the multifaceted, complicated healthcare structure.  Because of this, the overarching goal should be to simply reduce patient anxiety which is achieved when satisfaction and experience are both addressed appropriately.