What Is Patient Experience (And How Can It  Help You To Grow Your Healthcare Organisation)

patient experience
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As a healthcare professional, you may have heard about patient experience. Studies show that improving it can:

  • Lower the risk of medical malpractice by as much as 21.7%
  • Increase employee satisfaction and reduce staff turnover by 4.7%
  • Reduce the likelihood a patient will leave you by up to 301%

(Source: https://www.ahrq.gov/cahps/quality-improvement/improvement-guide/2-why-improve/index.html)

But while organisations often talk patient experience, few do anything practical about it.


The problem is that many people do not understand what patient experience means on a day to day basis.

In fact, if you ask ten people, you will get answers ranging from bedside support to discharge planning. This is only natural. People see the world through individual lenses.

But organisations cannot function when everyone’s following different rules.

That’s why in this article I will explain why you need to define the patient experience. As well as how to start creating a patient experience culture in your organisation.

Let’s begin.

Why Defining Patient Experience Is Important

I recently read a story about a woman whose relative was in a hospital in Melbourne.

The woman lived far away. So when she visited the relative, she planned to stay in the hospital overnight. But she wasn’t allowed.

Of course, this is standard hospital policy. But the woman felt disgusted. She didn’t judge the hospital on the quality of healthcare. But on a rule she disliked.

This story highlights an important consideration when defining the patient experience.

Patients (and their loved ones) often have an imperfect knowledge of healthcare. They rarely follow the technical details of treatment. And as a result, they will judge your organisation on things that they do understand.

For example:

  • I remember a friend telling me once that she stopped going to a GP because his shirt was dirty. If you couldn’t keep his shirt clean, how could he treat illness?
  • Another friend loves a private maternity hospital because ‘the food is delicious’.
  • And the British Medical Journal found that even signage has an impact on the experience.

These are only some examples, but they make the point. You cannot let patients define their own experience. You need to help them.

To do this, you can look to the aviation industry.

How Airline Help Passengers To Define Experience

The Cleveland Clinic believes airlines are like healthcare providers in this situation.

  • Both industries must follow strict safety standards, or people will get hurt.
  • Both industries must force people to follow the rules and procedures.

But the aviation industry has defined the passenger experience very well.


The airlines have made safety the number one priority. There is no compromise or exceptions. Passengers understand this and filter their experience through a safety lens.

That’s why nobody complains when they have to switch off their phones for landing. Or return to their seats when the seatbelt sign lights up. People will even accept delays if the plane needs maintenance.

Health Care Needs To Follow Aviation’s Lead

Patients are not customers. They are not always right. And what they think they want is often not what they need.

That’s why you need to define patient experience within the boundaries of safety like airlines.

For instance, many hospitals do not allow patients to use wheat-bags. (Wheat bags are sacks of wheat that you can heat in a microwave and apply to relieve soreness.)

Patients will often feel annoyed about this until you explain that it’s a safety rule. They will begrudgingly accept the restriction. And it will not affect their overall perception of the experience.

The Elephant, The Blind Men And Patient Experience

It’s clear that you cannot let patients define their own experience. But you may be surprised to learn that you also cannot let your staff define it. This parable from the ‘father’ of patient experience James Merlino explains why:

In this tale, a man asks six blind men to touch different parts of an elephant and to describe the animal.

The man who touches the leg observes that the elephant is like a pillar. The man moving the tail describes the elephant as a rope. The fellow who feels the ear says the beast is like a massive hand fan.

Each man recounts something different because none of the men can see the elephant as a whole. They could not agree on what the description of the elephant. Despite all them describing a feature of the animal.

(Source: Service Fanatics: How to Build Superior Patient Experience the Cleveland Clinic Way. McGraw-Hill Education.)

The point that Merlino is trying to make is that:

  • Everyone knows that patient experience is essential and pledges to help.
  • Staff agrees that delivering excellent results to patients is vital.
  • People want to do something and has suggestions.

But if you allow staff to define the patient experience, you will get dozens of ideas and no unified outcome.

The old saying comes to mind: “Too many cooks spoil the soup.”

Without a single outcome, you will find it almost impossible to define goals and KPIs. And without explicit purposes, there can be no action. Staff cannot develop systems, and patient experience becomes a vague buzzword.

The Solution

Patient experience means delivering excellent service to patients within the boundaries set by your organisation. This definition gives you a way to develop actionable steps to improve it.


Here’s a very simplified example.

  • Imagine yourself as a new patient at a dental practice. You walk in the door of the practice, and a receptionist greets you with a smile. She checks you in and asks you to take a seat. The dentists will be out in one moment. The process is seamless and smooth.
  • Now picture the same scenario. But when you walk through the door the receptionist is on the phone. Four people are waiting. The room feels stressed and you can tell people are getting angry.

It’s clear from this scenario that to improve the experience here, you could remove the phone reception. Delegate answering the phone to someone else. Or you could make it a policy that staff must greet every patient with a smile.

None of these policies will affect safety or quality. But they will make the patient happier.

As you move through this patient journey, you will notice many situations like this. They are called touchpoints.

At each touch-point, you define strategies to improve the experience without compromising safety.

In the end, you will have a series of concrete strategies to improve the experience. Each staff member will know their responsibilities. And you can track measurable outcomes.


  • Patient experience is delivering exceptional service without compromising your organisation’s safety standards.
  • You need to make this clear to your patients. Otherwise, they will judge you on trivial things that they understand.
  • You cannot let your staff define the patient experience. Everyone has different ideas. It is too hard to achieve a consistent outcome.

If you want help developing a patient experience strategy, book a strategy session by clicking here.

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