Home / Opinion / Columns /  Hospitals are ignoring patient experience; it's time they changed

Because of a friend’s health emergency, I was camped at a hotel near the hospital for an extended period. Every second day, a lady working in its lobby would call up to check if everything was okay and whether I needed anything. I could not help wonder why no hospital staffer or doctor ever did this. Many of us are familiar with the terms CX and UX, which respectively stand for ‘customer experience’ and ‘user experience’, representing the real and online worlds. I wonder why this lexicon has no PX (patient experience), even though a pandemic has wreaked havoc in India, robbing millions of their middle-class status.

In all our hospital visits, have we had any ‘wow’ moments? Most of us are just thankful that we didn’t succumb to the illness that led us there. I doubt if there is anything called ‘patient delight’ in their business model.

While most customer experiences constantly evolve, the patient experience in India remains unchanged. Some hospitals have a customer service department, mostly to address complaints.

The good old family-doctor era, when our local physician knew everything about our family and treated us either at a clinic or at home, may never return. But why do hospitals seem to care so little for our loyalty? Is it because there’s more demand than supply? Recall how we were subjected to unofficial bidding for beds during the second wave of covid even by reputed healthcare chains.

We Indians rarely get the PX we deserve. This is so at almost every touch-point. Yet, it could serve as a competitive advantage for healthcare providers that embrace it as part of a strategy. The chief marketing officer (CMO) usually handles CX, and the chief technology officer, the UX. Perhaps the CMO should be assigned the responsibility for PX so that alignment can be driven across all functions along the patient’s journey, be it the reception, outpatient department, booking systems, diagnostics, pharmacy, nurse-care or actual treatment by doctors.

Many hospitals proudly display an ISO certification, but total quality management (TQM) tools are inappropriate for PX; ISO focuses on outpatient or clinic encounters, with questions on how well doctors listened and answered the questions of patients. Once experience is treated as a ‘quality’ element, it ends up as yet another metric alongside other administrative statistics, such as infection control and rotation management. Besides, a focus only on doctors and nurses excludes ancillary experiences.

PX must encompass the overall experience of a patient’s health restoration, and a narrow operational metric of satisfaction could miss lapses in appointment bookings and much else. Such frustrations can turn patients away from the hospital, given a choice, just as we see with other businesses that offer a lousy experience. Perhaps hospitals do not track patient attrition or their lifetime value. Or, we as patients simply don’t have options, stuck between the devil and the deep sea.

The CMO, given charge of PX, must aim to enhance skills beyond clinical training, such as hospitality and patient services, in order to get all allied functions aligned. The first step would be to minimize patient friction. This alone will make a big difference. The CMO must routinely gather, analyse and optimize patient experiences at various touch-points. As it’s tough enough to do this within the premises, what about encounters outside the hospital?

Studies show that direct hospital care accounts for only 27% of patient well-being. The rest is contributed by social and lifestyle factors. People expect local healthcare services to get involved in community health, but private providers leave it to governments. How a community looks at efforts by private players is a major cause of worry, too, as I saw during the pandemic’s second wave in Bengaluru. A 100-bed isolation ward set up by multiple stakeholders for the poor got a feeble response; the fear of being used as guinea pigs of some sort prevailed because it was free.

The rise of digital health is perhaps a clear indicator that Indians desire a better experience than hospitals offer. We’ve seen a proliferation of health apps, including heavily-used government ones. Most hospitals have gone digital with a large chunk of digitizable services and about 65% of urban Indians use at least one digital health tool. At-home lab tests, remote consultation and medicine delivery have increased the complexity of PX, but, fortunately, the UX dimensions of e-commerce are of help here. The adoption of marketing-tech tools will help too.

The pandemic has put wellness centre- stage. PX is not a discrete satisfaction measure of health-service visits, but a continual one that tracks a sustained relationship with care providers. The CMO should map the patient wellness journey and plan for innovations at every touch-point, as in customer scenario mapping. The touch-points should span every interface between the hospital and its customers.

Patient experience should not be pigeon-holed as an issue of customer-service quality. Multiple stakeholders should join hands to drive its delivery and a diverse set of employees must get their roles right. Whoever does this properly first will win my loyalty.

M. Muneer is co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute. Connect on Twitter @MuneerMuh

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