Word-of-Mouth with a Bullhorn

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, April 2, 2008
What would have happened if, a year ago, you barged into the doctor's lounge and asked the room, "How important is patients' perception of the care they receive at our hospital? Not the actual quality of care based on objective quality measurements and outcomes, but how our patients feel they were treated during their stay?" I'm guessing you'd have gotten some blank stares. And what if you asked that same question today? I hope (though I'm not certain) that you'd get a different reaction.

Unless you've been hiding under a bush (or in a doctor's lounge, perhaps) you've heard the news that Health and Human Services has added patient satisfaction data to the Hospital Compare Web site. From the Wall Street Journal to the small-town Pennysaver, reporters are having a field day digging through the data to see how the hospitals they cover fared.

The data is based on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey, which asks patients to answer questions related to 10 topics, such as whether doctors and nurses treated the patient with respect, how quickly staff responded when the patient pressed the call button, whether the patient's room and bathroom were kept clean, whether the area around the room was quiet at night, and--perhaps most tellingly--whether or not they would recommend the hospital to friends and family.

It's word-of-mouth on steroids.

These 10 topics are the kinds of things folks speak to each other about after a stay in the hospital. They ask "How were you treated?" They ask "Were you in pain?" They do not ask "What's that hospital's MRSA infection rate?" or "How did the hospital do on its last unannounced Joint Commission survey?"

It's easier for reporters to write about patient satisfaction than it is for them to write about objective quality measures and outcomes. And it's a whole lot easier for readers to understand, as well.

This week a lot of hospital marketers (and perhaps a few doctors, too) are looking at the headlines in their local paper, worrying over a negative slant or celebrating over positive news.

But I also bet they're wondering whether potential patients will actually take note, let alone act upon the new information.

If you walk into the local coffee shop a year from now and ask the room, "Which hospital should you go to if you want to have the best experience? Which has the most satisfied patients?" What do you think would happen?

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at gshaw@healthleadersmedia.com.
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