You’ve undoubtedly heard this sage piece of advice before: other people’s opinions of you seldom matter. But, as a physical therapist, I have to take that bit of wisdom with a grain of salt, because when it comes to your patients’ opinion, making a positive impression is crucial. The patient experience is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart—and if you’re a rehab therapist, I’m betting you feel the same way. In fact, I firmly believe it should be at the core of any practice’s mission. Unfortunately, there’s a long-standing belief in the rehab therapy community that patient satisfaction is too subjective to measure, but research suggests otherwise.

A Recipe for Success

When we talk about patient experience and satisfaction, it’s easy to get hung up on the “smile” factor, which is often influenced by a host of external environmental factors (e.g., mood, personality, or home exercise program adherence). But as this white paper from Press Ganey points out, “Patient experience measurement is not a gauge of happiness; it is a gauge of value.” And value—from the patient’s perspective—is not nearly as subjective as a patient’s mood or mindset. The same white paper included a review of 55 patient satisfaction studies that ultimately revealed a link between patients’ overall perception of their experience and the actual safety and quality of the care they received. Patient satisfaction levels also correlated to the amount of time a patient spent with his or her provider. To me, this validates the inclusion of patient experience as one of the three prongs of the Affordable Care Act’s Triple Aim—and proves that it should not be dismissed as something that is “too subjective to measure.”

So, how can providers ensure their patients have positive experiences? In my mind, the recipe for a stellar patient experience requires two key ingredients: environment and interaction. And to use those ingredients effectively—in other words, to cook up a truly positive patient experience—you have to do so with a patient-focused customer service mindset. So, as you determine your approach to fostering clinic culture and patient engagement, ask yourself the following question: what is the patient going to remember?

Environmental Awareness

Think about your favorite coffee place. Why is it your favorite? If I had to wager a guess, you probably grab your morning cup of joe at a particular place because of (1) the quality of the product, (2) the location, and/or (3) the atmosphere. And when stopping for coffee is a mainstay in your morning routine, going elsewhere—or skipping it altogether—can throw off your entire day. I don’t know about you, but before I walk out the door in the morning with my keys in hand, I’m already looking forward to my morning coffee run. To me, the fact that I’m thinking about that cup of coffee before I’ve even left the house speaks to the value—more specifically, my perceived value—of my chosen haunt. Coffee isn’t just a beverage anymore. It’s an experience, which is why premium coffee shops can charge $5 for a cappuccino and get away with it—a standard that was unheard of a decade or two ago. And in this sense, PTs can take a lesson from their local café by delivering an experience that’s worth the price of admission.

Let’s go back to those factors that make a coffee spot your go-to. The product, the location, and the people all blend together to create a certain brand. And if that brand is successful, it’s probably the first thing you think of when you tell your friends about that particular business— heck, you probably have a mug with the brand name on it on your desk right now. Your clinic’s brand should function in a similar way. If you’ve successfully marketed your brand, then your patients should have a feel for you—and your practice’s culture—before they ever set foot in reception. Your brand says a lot about you; it’s the voice that sets you apart from the clinic down the street. So, if you’re not sure what that voice sounds like—or what it’s saying to your patients and prospective patients—consider the following:

  • Does your practice have a strong online presence (e.g., website, social media platforms, and review sites)?
  • What sort of online reviews do you have?
  • What is a patient’s initial interaction with your staff like?
  • How easy is it for patients to find you?
  • How complicated is your paperwork?

An End-to-End Endeavor

The first impression sets the tone for a patient’s entire experience. Once a patient is in your care, it’s up to you to uphold and sustain the (hopefully) positive impression your brand has already created—and to cultivate a meaningful patient experience. And don’t forget that the patient experience doesn’t end once a patient is discharged. A patient’s satisfaction level can change at any time during the care cycle—from his or her very first interaction with your clinic all the way to treatment completion—and beyond. In fact, your post-discharge interactions with patients can dramatically impact not only their opinions of you, but also their likelihood to return to your clinic for additional services or treatment.

Interaction Reaction

At WebPT, we talk a lot about outcomes, and for good reason: by tracking outcomes data, providers can exemplify the efficacy of their treatment as well as identify and improve in their weaker areas. But what does all of that mean to the patient? We all know that patients care about outcomes, but it’s not necessarily the end-all-be-all of value from the patient’s perspective. It turns out that patient satisfaction is closely tied to the amount of time the patient spends with you and your team. In fact, the above-mentioned Press Ganey study found that staff interaction is the number-one contributing factor to patient satisfaction. Other studies have also shown a definitive link between patient experience and the amount of time patients spend interacting with practice staff. To me, the implication is clear: customer experience and customer service go hand-in-hand.

Of course, making every patient-staff interaction a quality one becomes increasingly difficult as your patient volume grows, but that doesn’t mean it should be less of a focus. Otherwise, you could end up inadvertently employing the treatment model my PT colleagues and I used to refer to as “shake ’n bake” therapy: get patients in, get them treated with passive modalities, and get them out the door. And while you might be able to cram more patients into your workload this way, do you really think those patients will be loyal? Will they be retained? Will they even get better? If patient churn is a problem for your practice, you may want to reconsider your approach. For example, in my clinic, we were super successful with using ATCs, PTAs, and other extenders. I know this is a touchy subject for many, but in this case, we effectively worked as a team to consistently deliver the best possible patient experience. But, don’t get me wrong: every patient knew that I was the physical therapist—and that the buck stopped with me. So, whenever I seized an opportunity to work with extenders, I made sure those individuals used an approach that aligned with my techniques and values.

The Patient-Provider Partnership

Furthermore, collaborating with other providers doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for putting effort into creating your own stellar patient interactions. As therapists, we have the privilege of delivering a very personal and intimate type of care, and we must take the time to educate our patients and make every minute we spend with them count. During my clinic days, I would use models or imaging records to walk my patients through the mechanism of injury and educate them on the anatomy involved. I’d also lay out the course of treatment, projected time to heal, and requisite precautions, as well as my expectations of the patient. I viewed the patient-provider relationship as a partnership, and as such, I made it clear from day one that the patient would play a big role in his or her own success. From what I have observed and experienced throughout my therapy career, this mindset is one of the big differentiators for successful therapists—and their clinics.

As I mentioned before, a patient’s connection to you and your practice doesn’t end after discharge, nor should it. In fact, keeping the dialogue going is mutually beneficial. With the growing importance of patient satisfaction in relation to healthcare reform and alternative payment models, emphasizing the patient experience is more important than ever. Every interaction you have—from beginning to end—reflects on your practice’s culture and brand. And ultimately, that experience is what cultivates satisfaction and loyalty. After all, if your favorite coffee shop can win your loyalty with a great atmosphere and a stellar cup of hot bean water, then you can certainly win patient loyalty with a strong company culture and open, consistent communication. All it takes is a little brand savvy and a genuine passion for improving patient well-being—and that’s something truly worth valuing.