To Boost Loyalty, Forget Wait Times and Focus on Patient Peace of Mind

A study of patient satisfaction data shows patients tend to be highly satisfied when they have confidence in their physician and when they feel the staff does a good job of communicating.

Want your patients to be loyal to your healthcare organization? Try asking nicely.

That was a key takeaway from a Tuesday morning talk on patient loyalty given by Thomas H. Lee, MD, at the Healthcare Financial Management Association’s 2016 National Institute in Las Vegas. Lee is the chief medical officer at Press Ganey, as well as a Harvard Medical School professor and a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Patient loyalty has become a bigger and bigger topic at events like HFMA’s convention. As patients increasingly turn to the internet to research healthcare institutions, and as many patients pay a higher percentage of their health costs thanks to high-deductible insurance plans, healthcare organizations are scrambling to find new ways to ensure patients have positive experiences and will come back the next time they have a healthcare need.

“If you don’t have patients, if you don’t have market share, the game is over,” Lee said. “So loyalty, drawing patients to you, meeting their needs so they want to come to you, that’s critical to the business success of all your organizations.”

In order to find a method of reliably boosting patient loyalty, Lee and his colleagues studied the factors that appear to make patients more likely to recommend a healthcare organization to their friends and family. As it turns out, patients are easy graders. When asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the likelihood they’ll recommend a healthcare facility, about 85% of patients chose 5 out of 5.

Lee said patients seem to want to like their doctors and tend to be easy graders. He said healthcare providers should consider “5 out of 5” to be the only acceptable response.

“Given these data, if you get a 4 out of 5, it doesn’t mean that patients hate you, but it does mean that they’re just not that into you,” he said, meaning the patient might be open to go to a different doctor in the future.

Fortunately, “5 out of 5” scores appear to be easily attainable. When patients had confidence in their physicians, felt like the staff functioned well as a team, and felt like the staff communicated with them in an informative and empathetic way, the sub-5 “likely to recommend” scores virtually disappeared.

Put another way, patients want peace of mind.

“The challenge is that our patients are afraid,” Lee said. “They’ve always been afraid of their diseases and they’ve always been afraid of their treatment, but there’s a third fear today that wasn’t there when I was coming out of my training in the mid-1980s.”

Today, Lee said, patients worry about whether there will be gaps in care or communication errors, and whether their providers are actually listening to them. In short, Lee said, patients fear providers don’t have their acts together.

Lee said allaying these concerns is much more important to patient satisfaction and loyalty than convenience factors, such as waiting room times and plentiful parking. In fact, when patients expressed high confidence in their physicians and felt the staff listened and cared, “likely to recommend” scores soared, regardless of how long the patient had waited in the waiting room.

“I’m all for trying to reduce waiting,” Lee said, “…but in terms of driving likely to recommend, which I think is peace of mind, it didn’t matter. What they wanted was good people, working well together, who are showing that they care and communicating.”

Fortunately, those same factors also tend to correlate with quality of care.

“I think the good news is, it’s one job: it’s becoming a highly reliable organization about delivering care the way it ought to be delivered,” Lee said.