Rating Patient Satisfaction

Copyright 2018

Your days at the office are probably hectic as you try to give patients personal attention while juggling a full schedule. But when the exam room door closes and you're focusing on individual patients, are staff members also providing high quality care? Are your front office phones answered with reasonable speed and courtesy? Are cranky patients treated with diplomacy? Patients are sometimes satisfied with the doctors in a practice, but their experiences with the practice's employees before and after medical visits may send them shopping for new physicians.

Insurers Checking Too

Health insurers want to know that the doctors they're paying provide quality service to their customers. As a result, some insurers are sending secret shoppers to check out patient care, or having secret callers telephone to ask for directions and other basic information. These callers are also instructed to telephone medical offices when they are closed to find out how well after-hours calls are handled.

The reason: Some major insurers are linking a physician's bonus payment to the level of patient satisfaction. For example, one large network-model California HMO takes annual patient surveys and offers substantial bonuses to medical groups that score well.

Practices that contract with Managed Care Organizations may also benefit from survey information. If these groups can show user feedback that indicates a high level of patient satisfaction, the physicians may have leverage in negotiating future contracts.

A study by the AMA shows that more than 50 percent of patients surveyed rated the time spent with their doctors as excellent, yet only 39 percent thought the doctors' offices provided good phone service. Another study of Medicare and Medicaid patients revealed that in recent years respondents have become dissatisfied with the process of calling to make appointments with their doctors. In 1997, sixty-five percent described themselves as very satisfied when calling to schedule visits. But by 2003, that number dropped to 48 percent. So how can you find out how satisfied patients are with your staff? You can ask them, of course, and listen to complaints. But here are two other ways some doctors gather this important information:

1. "Secret shoppers" -- or in this case, patients. For years, retail stores and other businesses have used secret shoppers to find out what kind of service is being provided, from the perspective of a customer. For example, in a grocery store, a secret shopper may visit various departments like the deli and the bakery and ask for assistance. After shopping like other customers, they fill out reports about their experiences with information such as the names of employees they dealt with and the courtesy they encountered.

Some physicians are adopting the same practice. You can hire professionals to do this, or you can keep it simple and inexpensive. Many doctors ask family members or friends to make periodic calls to ask for directions to the office, try to schedule an appointment or get general information. Sometimes the callers may act annoying to see how staff members deal with difficult people. After all, many patients call for a doctor's help when they feel sick.

2. Patient surveys. Surveys are another great tool for finding out what your patients want -- and what, if anything, they find unpleasant about your practice. A professionally administered survey can show you how your office compares to others. This can be invaluable if you suspect you are losing patients to other practices.

You can also write the survey in-house. If you do, keep in mind that the questionnaire should be uncomplicated and short enough to be completed quickly. Address issues such as parking, phone service, wait time, politeness, billing accuracy and willingness of the staff to help get their questions answered.

Surveys can be structured in different ways. Some involve "yes" or "no" questions while others give the respondent the choice of five answers ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

Another issue to consider: When and how will you ask patients to complete the questionnaire? Some practices take advantage of the "wait time" and request that patients complete the survey before they see a doctor. Others give patients surveys as they check out. Either way, patients who don't feel well may not answer questions positively so another option is to mail or email surveys to their homes, allowing them to fill out answers at their leisure and in privacy.

You've Got the Data ... Now What?

If you uncover areas that need improvement and make changes, you might want to let patients know. For example, let's say you receive several complaints that magazines in the waiting room are outdated. After you throw out the old publications and replace them with current reading material, put a note to patients in your newsletter or near the reception desk, letting people know that you heard their concerns and responded.

If major changes are made, you might want to ask a small group of patients how they perceive the results. Most patients are flattered to be included in the process.

However you choose to receive feedback, it's a good idea to periodically view your medical practice from the patients' perspective. Is your hard work and investment being undermined by one rude staff member? Are patients thinking about going elsewhere over issues you don't even know about? To learn the answers, find out what goes on outside the exam room door.