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When Colleen Prescott woke up, she noticed that the muscles on the left side of her face were weak and drooped.

A week earlier, she had undergone major abdominal surgery and was still heavily sedated with pain medications. She didn’t want to spend half an hour on hold trying to reach her doctor. She needed an answer — and fast.

It’s 2022, and patients like Colleen expect quick, seamless interactions their healthcare providers through their preferred methods of communication — especially in dire situations like this one.

Consumers are accustomed to convenience and time-saving factors across all industries as a result of the pandemic, and healthcare organizations cannot ignore this shift. Adopting a digital-first mindset will be the key to a stronger patient experience.

Luckily for Colleen, her provider had recently implemented the WELL platform, so she was easily able to text the office. Moments later, a nurse responded and urged her to go to the emergency room because her symptoms mirrored those of a stroke.

“I wouldn’t have called my doctor and sat on hold for half an hour — I probably would have just ignored it,” Prescott* says. “Texting allowed me to reach out quickly and get an answer right away.”

Patient experience begins before the appointment

Patient experience begins before an appointment even occurs — for Prescott, it happened while she was still at home in bed.

“We used to think the patient experience began when they walked in the door, or maybe when they called to make an appointment, but now it’s when they start surfing the net,” said Dr. Tom Lee, Chief Medical Officer at patient engagement firm Press Ganey, in an April 2021 interview

Like many other aspects of everyday life, healthcare has shifted to a digital space. Moving forward, the healthcare organizations that thrive will be those that are prepared to meet patients in the long-term. Building out a digital, patient-centric care experience that focuses on appointment scheduling, convenient access to providers, and online or mobile bill pay will be key to staying ahead of the curve.

According to a 2021 Press Ganey report, patients’ likelihood to recommend their healthcare experience to others has decreased nationally since the onset of the pandemic. The greatest decreases in scores were largely influenced by patients’ ability to access timely care, including phone response, ability to book an appointment when needed, and seeing a doctor as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, according to research published by Sage Growth Partners, a Baltimore-based healthcare consultancy, only 39 percent of health system C-suite executives report using text messaging to improve patient experience. Even fewer are texting patients with truly conversational bidirectional messaging. This presents a clear opportunity for providers.

Better patient experiences lead to better outcomes

Research consistently confirms that positive patient experience correlates with better health outcomes. One example is a 2010 study that found that patient satisfaction was positively correlated with 13 of 14 measures of success for treatment of heart attacks. Additionally, for every 25 percent increase in patient satisfaction scores, there was an equivalent 25 percent change in predicted survival.

The researchers concluded that patients are good discriminators of the type of care they receive. A 2020 medical study described patients themselves as “foundational” enablers to primary care teams tasked to deliver high-quality primary care, thus affecting the patients’ healthcare journeys. When the quality of patient experience suffers, patients don’t fare well.

A more recent finding from The Beryl Institute also connects positive experience to positive healthcare outcomes, including during the pandemic.

Results are similar for patients with chronic conditions. For example, diabetic patients who report better communication and overall experience with their providers also have better blood sugar control and fewer functional limitations, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Better patient communication yields better experiences

A 2021 healthcare consumer study highlights the need for healthcare organizations to create and implement effective processes designed to improve patient experience. One particular area ripe for enhancement is patient-provider communications.

Healthcare organizations must build and use communication protocols where healthcare consumers “feel listened to and communicated with effectively.”

When Prescott landed in the ER, she was quickly diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, or idiopathic facial paralysis. While it’s not as serious as a stroke, it’s not something to ignore either — in some cases it can result in permanent contraction of the facial muscles. The sooner it’s treated, the better the prognosis.

“If I hadn’t texted my doctor and received treatment immediately, I could have had permanent nerve damage and a lifelong facial deformity,” she says. “Being able to reach my doctor quickly made all the difference.”

Patient experience is good for business

Cultivating positive experiences makes sense for patients and for providers. Here’s why:

  1. Patients are five times more likely to select a practice where they had a positive experience than one with a strong consumer marketing presence, according to a 2018 Press Ganey report.
  2. Hospitals with better patient experience ratings tend to have 50% higher profit margins than average hospitals, Accenture research found.
  3. Similarly, a 2016 Deloitte study found that hospitals with excellent HCAHPS scores had an average net margin of 4.7%. Hospitals with low scores had average margins of just 1.8%.
  4. A Vanguard Communications survey found that 96% of online patient complaints center around customer servicenot quality of care.
  5. 90% of patients consult online provider review websites before booking an appointment, a 2020 survey suggests. 
  6. 51% of patients would switch healthcare providers if it meant they’d receive great customer service, according to an Accenture report.
  7. Good patient experience is associated with lower medical malpractice risk. On a scale of one to five, with one being “very poor” to five being “very good,” every point increase in score reduces the risk of malpractice by 21.7 percent.
  8. Efforts to improve patient experience also improve employee satisfaction and reduce turnover. Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago launched a patient satisfaction program that resulted in improved staff satisfaction, productivity, internal and external recognition, and a 4.7 percent decrease in employee turnover.
  9. Positive experiences contribute to increased patient retention. Happy patients are three times more likely to remain in your practice than patients who have the poorest quality relationships with their providers.

For Prescott, being able to quickly and easily reach her provider not only resulted in a better health outcome but also yielded fierce patient loyalty.

“The experience was so positive — just what they were able to do for me without me really lifting more than a finger to reach out — I’ll be loyal to them forever,” Prescott says.

*name changed to protect patient identity