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Surviving the “great patient migration”: 4 ways to upgrade PX in 2022

Initially, 2021 saw a “great resignation” of workers. The pandemic drove an unprecedented caregiver crisis as healthcare organizations scrambled to change care models and processes while keeping up with emerging hotspots. Then came the “great patient migration”: Hordes of patients abandoned their current organizations and providers for competitors. In a sense, they were seeking greener pastures. The patient experience (PX) is now paramount to loyalty and retention efforts—and their expectations are higher than ever.

COVID-19 shook the foundation of established patient–physician relationships. At the same time, patient loyalty took its first hit, as people had to postpone nonurgent care and routine procedures were canceled. Skyrocketing use of telemedicine, driven by lockdowns—and the loosening of regulations around it—allowed for the “care everywhere” model: i.e., the ability to seek treatment in different geographies. The new competition further increased the potential for digital patient leakage and patient churn.

But perhaps the greatest equalizer of all has been the rise of the web in how patients search for providers. As patients return to in-person and hybrid care settings, healthcare organizations must make a compelling case to win patients over the competition.

The following four tactics are proven to slow digital patient leakage and improve PX.

1. Know the voice of the consumer and patient

When looking for a provider, finding the right fit isn’t easy. Before entering your facility or engaging your services virtually, patients start out as consumers, with options and a massive amount of information to sift through. They are looking to solve a problem at a vulnerable time and expect a positive and safe experience for a highly personal matter: their health. Key to attracting and retaining patients is understanding their needs, beginning with how they look for care and what they value in the process.

Press Ganey recently surveyed 1,000+ U.S. adults to closely examine consumer preferences and expectations for healthcare. We learned that the digital consumer experience (CX) trends that have massively accelerated in recent years have been hard-coded into how patients search for—and decide on—care. But a deeper dive into the data provided some interesting trends in how CX and PX are intrinsically linked.

Most people view around three different online sources before choosing a provider. While 65% use online search engines, this number has declined 22.8% since 2019. At the same time, a steady diversification of the types of sites consumers visit—including those for health systems/hospitals, insurance, reviews (Healthgrades, Vitals, ZocDoc, etc.), content (WebMD, Mayo Clinic, etc.), and pharmaceuticals/medical devices—means healthcare organizations must prioritize their web presence everywhere potential patients are looking.

Provider profile listings and ratings and reviews are critical. Ensure the authenticity and accuracy of these components to establish a strong first impression and win over patients.

In short:

  • Continually update provider listings. Incomplete information is a reputation killer and major frustration for people who’ll remember the time they wasted trying to get basic answers. All provider listings must include their name, location, contact information, whether they’re seeing new patients, insurances accepted, and any languages spoken. Invest in a listings management solution that ensures information is available and correct wherever consumers are searching for care.
  • Monitor what’s being said and shared. Reviews are consumers’ top consideration before booking an appointment. But not all reviews are created equal. Consumers primarily look for and value quality (68%), recency (57%), and the doctor’s average rating (55%) when reading reviews.
  • Respond to reviews—good or bad. Replying to patients shows them you’re listening and value their feedback. Thank happy patients for leaving glowing reviews. Engage with unhappy patients by addressing problems or misconceptions—and offer to resolve their issues offline.

2. Set expectations for the patient experience

The top drivers of 5-star reviews are: (1) quality of customer service (demeanor, attentiveness, helpfulness of staff and practitioners), (2) communication (follow-up appointment, annual check-up reminders, etc.), and (3) provider’s bedside—now often “webside”—manner.

Patients have set a higher bar. As they return to in-person and hybrid settings, it’s imperative that all employees make them feel welcome and comfortable. Despite record employee turnover, managers and other decision-makers can still help their teams meet this challenge by implementing tools that drive efficiency. For example, front desk staff can devote more time to answering patient questions while practice management software tackles the administrative tasks that would otherwise slow down their day.

Practitioners, meanwhile, face a greater accountability for post-discharge care as hospitals switch to value-based models. One thing that will set practitioners—and the organizations they work for—apart is their level of communication throughout the patient journey. To help patients prepare for an appointment, send a text message with a map to your location and a calendar notification, and arm them with information on what to expect during the visit or procedure.

This kind of curated experience can carry through to direct interactions. During an appointment, providers must quickly establish a rapport, shape dialogue around health literacy (ensuring patients understand their care plan), and collaborate with patients so that they, too, are helping contribute to their treatment and what’s put into their charts. After appointments, clinicians can share a journey map and provide printouts or secure links to documents that elaborate on diagnosis, treatment options, and post-procedure instructions.

3. Build stronger connections between doctors and patients

Amid the pandemic, a third of patients have reported that they trust the healthcare industry less than they once did. A huge burden now falls on physicians to carefully rebuild patient trust in the care that they and their organizations provide.

Practitioners need to establish an environment in which distractions are limited, questions are encouraged, patients’ opinions and thoughts are respected, and instructions are clearly delivered. For clinicians, this often means being aware of social determinants of health, including barriers to care, and the effect of cultural differences on care delivery.

For caregivers to have confidence in their delivery of care, they need organizational support. Doctors typically only hear grievances through the patient relations department—receiving scores they don’t know how to interpret—which can further erode their understanding of the end-to-end patient experience. Leaders need to use hard data to educate doctors on how to improve their interactions with patients.

An infusion of “radical gratitude" is crucial in bridging the patient–doctor gap. If you’re too strapped for resources to proactively collect patient and family comments and “thank yous,” source positive feedback via social media and distribute these notes of appreciation throughout the healthcare facility. Expressions of gratitude can build back some of what was lost when the pandemic raised tensions and stress among patients and healthcare workers.

4. Use human-centered design to improve operations and meet patient needs

The initial COVID outbreak and subsequent variants have had a whiplash-like effect on the healthcare workforce. In turn, this has impacted patient experience. But just as resignations and patient overflow threatened to sink many hospitals, front-line workers’ insights became a pivotal tool to drive decisions around new workflows and staffing models that better use available resources. Leveraging these ideas and designing operational methods that take the entire team into account is a central step in human-centered design, because healthcare workers understand better than anyone else how they operate and what they need.

This work must continue. Harness employee insights and knowledge through regular pulse surveys, rounding, and safety huddles. Showing that you value the input of your front-line workers is essential to connecting with those who are burned out by long hours, stress, and, in some cases, declining mental health. They need to see action and continual progress as result of their feedback. Follow up with those who contribute insights—and observe what is and isn’t working.

Improving PX and patient retention can’t be done in a bubble. It requires breaking down silos in an all-hands effort to slow the “Great Patient Migration” and get patients flocking back through your doors.

To learn how Press Ganey can transform your organization’s approach to patient experience in 2022, reach out to one of our experts.

About the author

Joan oversees the Experience solutions team in Strategic Consulting, partnering with clients for more than 15 years in consumer experience for the health and wellness space. Joan is known for driving innovation and engagement across large, multi-faceted organizations, and bringing valuable consumer experience ideas to fruition through the alignment of ideas, people, and processes. Joan’s passion is to transform the healthcare experience for both staff and patients. Prior to joining Press Ganey, Joan was chief experience officer at Yale New Haven Health System.

Profile Photo of Joan Kelly, EdD, M.S.Ed, MBA