Photo Credit: ACP Hospitalist

Do hospitals and physicians really want to improve the patient experience, or are they just studying to the HCAHPS and CG CAHPS tests? While this is only my experience, I am fairly confident my experience is all too common.

I was having significant pain on the left side of my neck and shoulder. And I had nerve pain shooting down my left arm. It was back.

Five years ago I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my cervical spine. That time, I had no idea what was going on. I just knew I had uncontrollable pain that couldn’t be relieved by ibuprofen, ice or heat. And I had numbness and tingling in my arms and fingers. Fortunately, I was able to resolve the issue with physical therapy.

So back to my current diagnosis. While my doctor’s office was able to get me in pretty quickly and start a course of medications to relieve the pain and swelling, it took a week to schedule my MRI, and another several days after that before I could actually have the scan. Earlier appointments were available, but I learned from the scheduler that the health system required a preauthorization. Why didn’t they do this before they called to schedule my appointment –like when they received the order from my doctor? At this point, I’m irritated. Not with the scheduler, but with the process. We have too many delays that detract from a positive patient experience and, more importantly, a timely diagnosis.

Fast forward -I finally have my scan, and as the technician walks me out the door, he hands me a CD with my images in a very nicely designed and branded case. Cool, right? Wrong. What was I supposed to do with it! Not being a radiologist, it’s not like I could read it for myself. The results were literally right in my hands, but I still didn’t know what they were. Very frustrating.

My doctor said they’d call me with my results and that she expected to have them within 48 hours. Knowing that I was going to be traveling for work, she also prescribed me a second round of prednisone to ensure the swelling stayed under control until I returned. So, things are looking up, right? My doctor was proactively managing my pain until we received the diagnosis and letting me know when I could expect to hear the results of the scan. I took the drugs, left town, and awaited a call.

Three days and no call. So I called my doctor’s office and left a message with the front desk, because neither my doctor nor her nurse was available. No callback for three days. And when the nurse did finally call, I missed it because I was in an airplane. Another full week goes by before I get a second call initiated from my doctor’s office (despite multiple calls I made). It’s as if they checked me off a list each time. Called patient. Didn’t reach her. Check!

I’m a patient, not a task.

If you say you care about the patient experience, or that you care for the whole person, or that you provide compassionate care, or any number of similar brand promises out there, then calling me with my test results should be high on your priority list.

Yesterday, a full 16 days after my MRI scan, I finally connected with the nurse. And guess what? She could only tell me that it was worse than the last time. That’s it? I had to ask probing questions to get any real details. And she has access to my medical record. All she had to do was read it! From her cryptic comments, as she apparently scanned the report, I pieced together that I had herniated the same disc plus a new one. Then she told me that my doctor wanted me to see a specialist and that I would be getting a call with my appointment time, but could call back and change it if the time didn’t suit me.

Do they really think that’s an efficient process that contributes to a positive patient experience?

Fortunately, I spent enough years working for health systems to have proactively asked my physician for a script for physical therapy. So, I’m skipping the specialist and going straight to PT. No way am I starting another game of phone tag and preauthorizations, only to be sent to physical therapy anyway.

The patient experience is not a mystery. And it’s actually not that difficult. If physician offices and hospitals would do just one thing, I think their scores would noticeably improve- even though it does not tie to a single question on the standardized surveys.

Train staff to imagine every patient as their own loved one. If this behavior existed, fewer patients would have to track down their results. Process would not trump common sense. Time from diagnosis to treatment would be shorter. And the patient experience would be significantly improved.

For health systems interested in closing the gap between what they promise and what they deliver when it comes to the patient experience, it will take more than “studying to the test” for CAHPS. It will require fixing the common sense things like prioritizing callbacks to patients awaiting test results.

What one thing do you want to see physician offices or hospitals fix to improve your patient experience?