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The Difference Between Patient Experience and Customer Experience, and Why It Matters

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   May 17, 2024

Successful healthcare organizations can distinguish between the patient experience and the customer experience.

Healthcare organizations need to focus on both the patient experience and the customer experience. And yes, there are important differences.

The contrast between patient experience and customer experience is largely a difference in perspective, says Sarah Way, MD, JD, chief quality and medical officer at Texas Health Dallas, a hospital operated by Texas Health Resources.

Patient experience is related to when someone receives medical care in the moment, says Way, an emergency medicine physician. For example, receiving treatment from an emergency room clinician is a patient experience.

"A customer experience is when you look at an interaction more broadly, when somebody is engaging with the healthcare system, but it is not the provision of medical care in the moment," Way says. "In the emergency department, customer experience includes how somebody is checked in at the front desk and how they are discharged. The customer experience also includes family members and how they perceive a patient's visit to a care setting."

Patient experience and customer experience are different engagements with the healthcare system, and one person can be both a patient and a customer, says Amy Goad, managing director at Sendero Consulting.

While someone is a patient when they receive care directly from a provider, that person is a consumer when dealing with other aspects of the healthcare system outside of direct medical care.

"You are a customer when you are trying to schedule an appointment, when you are trying to coordinate insurance, when you are trying to find lab results while navigating a patient portal, and when you are conducting research on who you want to be your provider," Goad says.

Identifying different strategies for different forms of engagement

One difference between the patient experience and the customer experience is that patients are much more vulnerable and want to spend time with their healthcare providers, Goad says.

"That vulnerability creates a different bond with your care provider than the situation when you are trying to order a prescription or schedule an appointment," Goad says. "When my health is in question and it feels risky, the patient relationship becomes a bigger priority than the customer components."

On the other hand, Goad says, a health system's customer experience strategy should focus on convenience and ease of use.

"As customers, people do not want the heavy engagement that they need when they are patients—they want to be bothered as little as possible," Goad says. "Customers are convenience-focused and transactional. You want convenience in your interactions, which you want to be quick and simple."

A health system that fails to distinguish between patient experience and customer experience will see the effect in negative satisfaction scores, Goad says.

"When I'm wearing the hat of the customer and somebody tries to treat me like a patient, it is going to wear me out—you are trying to take up too much of my time, and I am going to go somewhere else where it is easier," Goad says.

"When I'm wearing my patient hat and I'm feeling anxious about my pregnancy and want to spend more time with my doctor, if I get treated as a customer such as quickly getting in and out of an appointment, I am going to feel frustrated," Goad says. "I am going to feel that I am not a known entity and that there is no one investing the time to make sure I am OK."

Conversely, Way says, a CMO must understand that the healthcare experience is about the whole person, both the patient and the customer. Failing to recognize and address both types of engagement, Way says, could lead to fractured care or a feeling of disconnection with the health system.

"You need to provide the right medical care in the moment, but you also need to recognize that if you do not address the customer experience you are not going to get the best result for the person you are serving," Way says.

Serving both the patient and the customer

Key components of the customer experience in healthcare involve taking steps beyond the provision of medical care, such as providing resources for follow-up care or health and wellness services, Way says.

"We need to recognize that there is more to serving people than providing medical care in the moment," Way says. "For example, if you write a prescription, you need to consider whether the pharmacy is open, whether your patient has transportation to get to the pharmacy, and whether your patient can afford the medication."

For the customer experience, healthcare organizations need to recognize the resources people need to build their overall health even when they are not sick, Way says.

"One of the big initiatives across the country is to look at social determinants of health," Way says. "We need to be gathering information about what our patients are struggling with such as food insecurity and housing. If a patient is struggling with food insecurity, healthcare organizations need to help patients find resources in the community such as food pantries and connect patients to those resources."

Ensuring patients have transportation is another element of generating a good customer experience, Way says.

"If a patient is discharged from the hospital and there is a high likelihood that the patient is going to need outpatient care or come back to the hospital, you need to ask the patient how they are going to get to their appointments," Way says. "If transportation is an issue, the next question you need to ask is what can we do to help you get transportation. There are community resources that provide transportation."

If transportation is problematic, healthcare organizations also should be able to provide appointments via telemedicine, Way says.

Navigating between patient experience and customer experience

Healthcare providers need to understand the full health journey and be able to differentiate between the patient experience and the customer experience, Goad says.

"When a care provider is sitting in an exam room with someone, they need to recognize they are dealing with a patient," Goad says. "When someone is at the front desk, they are likely to want more of a customer experience versus a patient experience."

When health systems are looking to invest and innovate, if they are trying to innovate on a patient experience but focus more on consumer-centric factors such as billing and scheduling, they are missing the mark, Goad says.

"Examples of investing in patient experience include having more clinical trials and hiring more clinical staff so clinicians can have more time with patients," Goad says. "Health systems need to understand how they are investing in these separate experiences to get better efficiencies and outcomes."

Healthcare organizations need to know that patient experience and customer experience are equally important, and they cannot be disconnected, Way says.

"We are having to shift as physicians and providers from the idea that providing medical care is enough for the people we serve," Way says. "We also have a responsibility to ensure that the medical care we provide is received and accessed in the right way. It is not enough to be great physicians in the technical sense—we also must be good communicators, we have to work in a system that reaches out and provides good access, and we have to address needs beyond the provision of medical care."

Historically, clinicians have focused on the people they serve as patients, but that focus is too narrow, Way says.

"We must expand that zone to also think about the people we serve as customers," Way says. "This is not a skill set we are taught in medical school—healthcare organizations need to build the skill set of their providers to include dealing with people as patients and customers. We want the care we provide to be recognized as good because it is received well."

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Patient experience is defined as when someone receives medical care in the moment, such as treatment in the emergency room.

Customer experience is defined as the interaction with the healthcare system beyond receiving medical care, such as scheduling an appointment.

CMOs need to expand the scope of how they serve people as patients and customers.

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