The Necessity for a Patient Satisfaction Survey

Stephanie McMullin

Stephanie McMullin, Senior Risk Management and Patient Safety Specialist for the Cooperative of American Physicians, Inc. (CAP). 

Despite the enormous amount of knowledge that was imparted upon you during your education, perhaps one of the most important elements of maintaining a successful practice was, most likely, barely touched upon. The concept of quality health care is not complete without a rigorous discussion of patient satisfaction. A good physician/patient relationship is a crucial element of a successful practice. The fact that patients do not complain does not necessarily mean they are satisfied with the care they are receiving.

The Necessity for a Patient Satisfaction Survey

Let’s face it: In the big picture, seemingly no matter which profession, a majority of complaints to licensing boards does not revolve around specific ‘practice-based’ issues. Instead, those complaints tend to be based on “client-expectation” issues. From this, we can make the claim that happy clients do not tend to complain. If your practice can meet your patients’ expectations then your patients will more than likely react favorably by continuing their relationship with your practice, and perhaps even recommend your practice to a friend. The best method to gauge your patients’ opinion of their experience is to ask them, and by far the most cost effective method of achieving that is by a properly constructed and thoroughly analyzed patient satisfaction survey.

The Objections to a Patient Satisfaction Survey

Certainly, there are what some see as “legitimate” objections to the patient satisfaction survey. Certainly high on that list would be the issue of cost. If your practice is a member of a medical malpractice insurance organization, it’s possible that the administration and analysis of a patient satisfaction survey is a member service, available to the practice for no additional cost. If not, there are independent consulting firms that can work with your practice to design and analyze a survey. Additional costs that would be incurred would include staff time necessary to distribute and collect the survey.

The reality is, though, that the cost of an independently produced and analyzed survey is very minor when compared to the potential gains. Another concern might be the dependability of the data. Rest assured, though, because a properly written survey can be a very powerful and reliable tool. Whether you elect to offer a blanket approach, or target specific groups of patients within your practice, the results won’t lie. They will provide true insight into the level of satisfaction your patients are feeling.

The Goal of a Patient Satisfaction Survey

The goal of any patient satisfaction survey must be to assess the patient’s perception of the practice. It sounds simple, and, in fact, Dr. Leonard M. Fromer, who is the executive medical director, Group Practice Forum and Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles, agrees.

Fromer was quoted in the January, 1999, issue of Family Practice Management as saying, “Keep It Simple.”

He continues: “Ask about the top three issues. Practices have three general goals when they interact with patients: to provide quality health care, to make that care accessible and to treat patients with courtesy and respect. Your survey questions, then, should cover each of the three areas: quality issues, access issues, and interpersonal issues.”

Remember, the goal of the patient satisfaction survey is not to assess whether or not the patient received sound medical treatment. Rather, it is to assess how the “practice,” not the doctor, treated the patient. Did the doctor listen? Was it easy to make an appointment? Would the patient recommend the doctor to a friend or family member? None of these questions deal with the medical aspect of the visit. They are designed to assess the patients’ perception of the interpersonal contacts made during the setting and execution of their appointment.

The Benefits of a Patient Satisfaction Survey

Knowing whether or not the patients overall level of satisfaction was positive or negative can have serious impact on the “practice of the practice,” and the only way to take advantage of this knowledge is to actually address the issues raised by the results of the survey. If the patient satisfaction survey indicates that it is generally easy to make an appointment, but also indicates that there is a level of dissatisfaction with the amount of time actually spent with the doctor, adjustments should be made. If the survey shows that generally, patients accomplished their goals with their visit, but that there would likely not be a referral to a friend or family member, adjustments should be made.

The vast array of benefits from a successful patient satisfaction survey will only be realized if the entire staff is made aware of the results, and both strengths and weaknesses of the practice are recognized and acted upon. Napoleon Bonaparte was credited with recognizing that “…even the lowliest foot-soldier carries the general’s baton in his nap sack…” It might not be the doctor who is potentially creating an issue with the practice. It is generally a team effort, so staff awareness of the results of a survey is essential.

In Conclusion

The knowledge of the patient’s opinion of his or her experience in your office is invaluable. It is, in many ways, just as important to the success of the practice as a correct diagnosis is to the health of the patient. In fact, if used properly, the patient satisfaction survey can truly serve as a diagnostic tool for the practice. It will help you increase patient safety, reduce your liability and perhaps even serve as a marketing tool. Keep in mind that happy clients tend to make positive recommendations, whether it be for a good restaurant or a good doctor.

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