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HCAHPS Anxiety? Take a Breath

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Not-so-great scores don't have to be a marketing nightmare if your team is prepared.

The Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, at its core, is about image. Image is what marketing is all about, and protecting your hospital's image could be a necessity if the federal survey doesn't bring back the best results. But no matter how bad your scores, HCAHPS doesn't have to be an exercise in crisis management. With preparation, even the worst-scoring hospitals will find HCAHPS manageable, says Frederick C. Bagg, director of strategic planning and research for St. Francis Hospital & Health Centers of Beech Grove, IN, part of a 12-hospital, 3,300-bed system run by the Sisters of St. Francis Health Services, Inc.

"There shouldn't be a hospital in the country that doesn't kind of know where it is going to fit in this puzzle," Bagg says. So how can marketers ensure that handling HCAHPS is a matter of issues management, not frantic damage control?

Know your scores

At St. Francis, the health system has been working with HCAHPS since it was first released and participated in a trial run. "We know what our HCAHPS scores were on the first pass. We know what our Press Ganey scores are, and we know what our scores are in other independent consumer studies," Bagg says. "Those three things together tell us what the trend is."

Though the HCAHPS survey uses different language than Press Ganey and other vendor surveys, Bagg says results from that kind of survey will help give administrators an idea of where their hospital stands with patients.

But what if you weren't part of an HCAHPS trial run? "If you don't know your scores, it's not too late," Bagg says. "Do a consumer study . . . figure out where you are so that HCAHPS is not a surprise."

Know your strengths and weaknesses

If your results show room for improvement in a particular area, your marketers should know what the facility is doing to remedy the situation-and how to explain why the organization scored as it did. "What is the issue that can possibly beat you up? You should know what that is before anyone else, and be ready to talk about it," Bagg says.

Knowing how your hospital scores on HCAHPS will also give you an idea of what your hospital is doing well--and what it needs to keep doing well to continue to satisfy patients, says Marsha Nelson, RN, president and chief executive officer of the California Institute for Health Systems Performance. "It lets you know what the triggers are for patients at your hospitals. The bottom line is that hospitals cannot ignore this data," she says, "and they can't rest on their laurels, either."

Once marketers know what caused the hospital's poor scores and what is being done to change them, it will be easier for them to craft a response. And, Bagg says, remembering the basics of media relations doesn't hurt, either. Marketing should know what message they want to convey to the press and who will deliver that message. Before the first phone call comes, that person should be armed with an appropriate response.

Know the media

When California launched a voluntary collection of statewide data in 2001, hospital administrators felt anxious--just as senior leaders facing HCAHPS do today. Many of those California facilities took a proactive approach to media relations, contacting reporters in advance of the survey's release rather than waiting for journalists to come knocking.

"Healthcare stakeholders know their media. They know who their health reporters are and who is fair. They should be able to start working with them to prepare them," Nelson says.

The California Institute for Health Systems Performance hosted editorial roundtables to provide reporters with the basics of the reporting initiative, and gave reporters a sneak peek at the results a few days in advance, giving them time to gather information for their stories.

"We did briefings on Monday and released the report on a Thursday," says Nelson. "The reporters were able to call the stakeholders and not rush to get their stories done . . . and for the most part, they presented a very balanced view."

-Maureen Larkin

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