Educate Patients to Improve Both Patient and Physician Satisfaction

HealthLeaders Media Staff, April 22, 2009

Trisha Torrey has every right to be angry with the medical profession. After doctors removed a golf-ball sized lump on her torso, she waited two weeks for test results before she was told she had a rare form of cancer and another two weeks before she could get an oncology appointment. Without chemotherapy, the doctors said, she would die in six months. Even with treatment, they said, her prognosis was poor.

Torrey says her oncologist was an "arrogant SOB." who refused to consider that the test results might be wrong, dismissed her questions about symptoms that didn't fit with what she'd read about the disease online, told her that seeking out a second opinion would be fruitless because surely no one would know any more than he, and failed to follow up on an important test that ultimately proved she did not have cancer after all.

That was five years ago. Since then she's made it her mission to educate patients on navigating the healthcare system, communicating with doctors and other caregivers, and making the most of those eight-minute doctor appointments. She blogs, twitters, writes columns, is an expert on, and hosts a radio show on healthcare.

Torrey, who was a marketer for 20 years, also speaks to healthcare marketers about how they can improve service at their organizations.

It starts with educating patients and managing their expectations.

"Nobody ever teaches us to be patients," Torrey says. "Doctors go through years and years of training, but no one ever teaches patients to be patients."

For example, many patients don't think about the fact that physicians are running a business—that they have to keep the lights on and pay their staff. Many don't understand the pressures of declining reimbursements and increasing costs.

Twenty years ago, a doctor could spend 20 minutes with a patient. That's no longer realistic. But if you tell the patient that the doctor has only eight minutes, the patient knows to maximize that time, she says. If the patient is old-school and you don't manage his or her expectations, he or she will be upset.

On the other hand, Torrey notes, if you tell patients they're getting eight minutes and they actually get 10? Now you've exceeded their expectations.

"You don't even have to change the experience to make it positive," Torrey says.

Of course, your docs probably don't have the time (or, in some cases, the inclination) to educate their patients. That's where you can step in, offering classes or online information about being a good patient—in turn making physicians' lives a lot easier. That's good for both patient satisfaction and physician relations.

When she first started on her quest, healthcare professionals were standoffish and defensive, Torrey says. Now, she says, "They are realizing how much of a friend I can be."

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