The Optimized Doctor

Creating positive patient experiences


Let’s start with an exercise, shall we? What was the last vacation you went on? How would you rate that vacation on a scale of 1-10?

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

How you came up with that score is likely not entirely reflective of your actual experience. Understanding how we remember experiences is critical for the work we do everyday. Health care is the ultimate service industry and understanding patients’ experiences will give you a significant advantage in your practice.

My last vacation was in Alaska. I’d rate it a 9 out of 10. How did I come up with that score? It is not the mean score of the entire trip as you might expect. Rather, I took a shortcut and thought only about the highlights to come up with a number. We remember, and evaluate, our experiences as a series of discrete events. In considering these events, it is only the highs, the lows, and the transitions that matter. Think about the score you gave your vacation. What specific moments did you remember?

This phenomenon is not specific to vacations. It applies to all service experiences. When your patients evaluate you, they will ignore most of what occurred and focus on only a few moments. Fair or not, it is from these bits only that they will rate their entire experience. This information helps us devise strategies to achieve high satisfaction scores: Focus on the high points, address the low points, if any, and be sure the transitions are pleasant.

For example, a patient might come to see you for a procedure. It could be something positive, such as injection of cosmetic filler or something negative like a colonoscopy. Either way, being finished with the procedure will likely be the best part for them. Don’t rush this time; instead of quickly moving on, take a moment to acknowledge you’re done, how well the patient did, or how much better they will now look or feel. Engaging with your patient at this moment can improve the salience of their experience and increase the likelihood that she or he will remember the appointment favorably and rate you accordingly, if given the opportunity.

In the same way, if you are aware your patient has experienced something negative, try to respond to it right away. Acknowledge if she or he expressed frustration, such as a long wait or pain, then take a minute to address or reframe it. Blunting the severity of the service failure can blunt their recall of it. This will make it less likely that it becomes a memorable part of their experience.

Last, transitions matter. These are the moments when your patient shifts from one setting to another, such as arriving at your office, moving from the waiting room to the exam room, and wrapping up the visit with the receptionist. Many of these moments will be managed by your staff. Therefore, invest time reminding them of their importance and teaching them tips and techniques to help patients transition smoothly and to feel well cared for. There will likely be a wonderful return on investment for them, you and, most importantly, your patients.

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