A panel of experts offered advice on what is fast becoming one of the most vexing and frustrating—yet one of the most important—aspects of healthcare: patient satisfaction. The panel offered perspectives from both the academic and private settings during a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation.
C.W. David Chang, MD, Jerry W. Templer, MD Faculty Scholar in Otolaryngology and associate professor of clinical otolaryngology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, noted that patient satisfaction accounts for 30% of the new value-based purchasing model for hospital reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “These metrics of patient satisfaction are increasingly going to be part of how we get reimbursed,” he said. The quandary is that “getting what the patient wants and not what the patient needs may have some detriments.” An oft-cited 2012 study found that while higher patient satisfaction was linked to less emergency department use, it was also linked to more inpatient use, higher overall healthcare and prescription drug costs, and increased mortality (Arch Intern Med. 2012;172:405-411).
Does the need to satisfy patients lead physicians to honor their requests for discretionary healthcare, potentially driving up costs without adding much benefit?
Word of Mouth
Terry Day, MD, medical director of head and neck oncology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said studies have shown that patients still rely largely on word of mouth to find primary-care physicians (although specialty physicians are more often found through physician referrals). Physician interactions with patients will drive that word of mouth, he said. “You’ve got to still be a human,” he said. “You’ve got to talk to the patient. And you’ve got to allow them to talk to you.”
So far, online ratings do not seem to matter much to patients, said Dr. Day, but he suspects that the public will likely begin using those systems more frequently in the near future.
The dynamic between the patient and physician has changed drastically in recent years, with patients conducting their own research and physicians essentially being used as “consultants,” he said. “And that’s where the patient-physician interaction is different depending on who your patient is and what they’re there for,” Dr. Day added. “So you can’t just say, ‘Here’s your diagnosis and here’s what we’re going to do about it.’ I spend a lot more time finding out who they are and why they’re there.”
Steven Y. Park, MD, who runs a private sleep medicine practice in the Bronx, has a high-profile online presence, including a 75,000 hits-a-month website, which he said is crucial to helping promote patient satisfaction. Put simply, an online presence helps physicians get to know and connect with their patients. “Using social media and marketing can help to tailor your responses and services based on a thorough understanding of your patients’ psychological and emotional needs,” he said. This online activity helps engage patients and facilitate better clinical outcomes, restores and rejuvenates the physician-patient relationship, and can make practicing medicine fun and rewarding again.
When you Google “Doctor Steven Park,” you don’t go straight to online review sites about him. Instead, you go to the content he himself has created: his own website, a YouTube video he posted, his book for sale on Amazon, and so on. A key for this is frequent blogging, which he said he can keep fresh with an investment of just 30 to 45 minutes a week. His blog posts are automatically posted to all his social media sites with no extra time expended on his part. “Blogs are so powerful in terms of helping you drive up your search engine rankings,” he added.
Steering web traffic to your own content is far more effective than obsessing over online reviews, he said. But if you’re considering “stuffing the ballot box,” as he puts it, with a bunch of anonymous favorable reviews about yourself, think twice, he said. “Don’t do it, because people will figure it out,” he said.
Richard Thrasher III, MD, managing partner at an otolaryngology private practice in McKinney, Texas, said he’s proof that use of the web can help drive a practice’s business.
Using social media has been an enormous boost to his practice, he said. Part of the beauty of it is that it is so malleable. “You can tailor social media,” Dr. Thrasher said. “You can tailor the Internet; you can tailor all of your different activities online to go along with whatever your background is. There’s no one formula that’s successful all the time for everybody.”
Like Dr. Park’s, Dr. Thrasher’s blogs are a big part of what drives traffic to his website, which now gets 66,000 hits a month. He noticed a spike in traffic when he started posting blog entries, and saw dips at times when he took breaks. Those dips also led to a slower rate of growth in the number of patient visits, he said. He also uses tools to make posts to social media sites at certain times of the day, for optimal timing.
It’s important to remember that no matter how skilled you are at using social media, you still need a good product to market. “You have to have a brand,” he said. “And what I want to emphasize is [that] your logo is not your brand. Your brand, as a physician, is an experience. It’s the patient’s experience. Whatever that patient walks out of your office with, that’s going to be your brand.”
A passive approach to marketing might not end well, he cautioned. “You get to define your market,” Dr. Thrasher said. “What you shouldn’t rely on is your market defining you,” he added. He said you can, and should, take steps to know your patient population, to know who your competitors are, and to adjust accordingly. “If you’re not marketing yourself, they may or may not find you. … If you think they’re going to find you if you’re not there marketing yourself, it’s a delusion.”
Thomas Collins is a freelance medical writer based in Florida.