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Creating Positive Patient Experiences in Specialty Care Settings

A positive patient experience in specialty care settings means comforting patients and allaying their fears.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Ensuring a positive patient experience is a high priority for healthcare organizations, and for a good reason. A satisfied customer is more likely to return following a good hospital experience, and that is critical for a healthy hospital revenue cycle.

But a positive patient experience is difficult to achieve, even in the most ideal of settings. Doctors can struggle in the primary care office to pinpoint exactly what a patient wants from an office visit, and providers often grapple with different priorities that distinguish patient satisfaction from patient experience.

In the specialty care space, those complications remain, but with one added foil: patients are fearful because they don’t know what they’re in for during an appointment.

That’s usually the situation in radiology departments, where patients are confused about their impending diagnoses and fearful of the tests that lay ahead, according to Jennifer Kemp, MD, MB, FACR, a diagnostic radiologist and a body imaging subspecialist at Denver-based Diversified Radiology.

“When a patient walks into a primary care office, she knows what she’s going to encounter,” Kemp explained during an interview with PatientEngagementHIT.com. “She’ll talk to her doctor, and the doctor will listen and check her general health.”

READ MORE: Positive Patient Experience Key for Good Online Physician Reviews

“But when a patient walks into the radiology department, a lot of times she won’t know what’s she’s in for,” Kemp continued. “Most people know what an x-ray is, but a lot of people don’t know what an ultrasound is or a CAT scan or an MRI or what to expect. There is a lot of fear around the unknown.”

Patients generally are not comforted during the earlier phases of their radiology department experiences, according to a recent survey from Philips. Although about 80 percent of patients are satisfied with their referring physicians and radiologists, patients still have issues with the process.

Twenty-three percent of surveyed patients said they felt unprepared going into their exam, 25 percent were fearful during the scan, and 27 percent said they received average or poor instructions about the exam follow-up process. Better patient education can help support patients during these points of care.

“It’s important to make patients feel more comfortable by informing them of what to expect with their exam and informing them why they are having the exam,” Kemp explained.

Kemp said radiologists can quell patient concerns by going through the details of what to expect during an MRI, for example.

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“It’s key to inform patients of every step along the way so that their brains don’t start imagining the worst,” Kemp explained. “Like, ‘oh my gosh, why are they not talking to me during my ultrasound? Why is the machine making so much noise during my MRI? Is the machine broken? Is there something terrible going on?’”

In turn, this can lead to better quality results and better quality care, Kemp said. Radiologists frequently encounter a fuzzy screening or inaccurate results because the patient was not able to follow directions during the scan.

This is not always the patient’s fault, Kemp asserted. It is difficult to sit still during an MRI when you are concerned, confused, and fearful, she acknowledged.

“If patients are less fearful and if they know what to expect, they are going to be able to comply with the imaging exam requirements, such as holding still or holding their breath,” Kemp noted. “If patients know how long they are going to have to hold their breath, it’s a little easier than just saying hold your breath and it might be an unknown amount of time that you have to do that.”

Responsibility for this level of patient education falls on both the referring provider and the radiologist, Kemp suggested. Since the radiologist doesn’t usually order an imaging test, the referring provider needs to inform the patient of the test type and potentially a little bit about what is in store.

READ MORE: Integrating Patient Engagement Strategies into Specialty Care

Once in the radiology department, it is important for radiologists to reiterate this information to patients, going into more detail to ideally assuage patient fears.

Although that exchange is ideal, Kemp said it is far from the current reality.

“Referring physicians don’t exactly know how to tell the patient what to expect, so that really falls in our hands as the radiology department,” Kemp stated. “It would be great if we could inform doctors’ offices more, or the assistants at the doctor’s office who are ordering the exam. If the referring providers could be educated more, that would be great.”

“But, that takes time and money,” Kemp said.

Coordinating care and patient education between disparate providers can be costly and complicated, Kemp pointed out. But it is also less than ideal to handle all patient education when the patient arrives in the radiology department, too.

“We are pressed for time in every little thing that we do. When we are rushing, it’s harder to take the time to explain things to patients,” Kemp explained. “It’s harder to contact the patient in advance of their imaging exam and talk to them about what to expect.”

Fortunately, there is some potential for radiologists to leverage positive provider relationships to improve patient education. According to the Philips survey, patients are more likely to have a positive experience in radiology if they trust their referring physician.

“The far majority of patients do have trust in their doctor. They trust that their referring physician is ordering the right test for them and then it was going to be a safe test,” Kemp said. “That’s lovely. A good relationship with their referring physician is what any patient wants.”

The next step is to ensure that patients have that level of trust with their radiologists. Although 77 percent of patients reported a positive experience with the radiology department, feelings of trust could be better, the survey showed.

This begins with the radiologist-patient relationship. Although pressed for time, radiologists must remember that their patients are sensitive and are undergoing an uncomfortable and potentially fearful examination.

“Every patient is a different human being and needs to be treated as such,” Kemp asserted.

Being more present, having empathy, and being connected with patients as individuals will be helpful in these situations, Kemp suggested. These are all common factors that bring humanness to the healthcare experience.

Additionally, instilling trust and comfort into radiologist-patient relationships will require a better connection between the radiology department and the referring physician.

“If patients already have trust in their doctor, radiologists must form a relationship with the ordering physician’s office,” Kemp recommended. “We can educate clinicians about what patients should expect and the best tests to order patients. We must make sure that we as radiologists are willing to communicate easily with doctors’ offices if they call for a question.”

This is all a part of the healthcare industry’s shift toward more value-based care and consumer-centric care. Patients are assuming more financial responsibility for their care, which in turn makes patients the owners of their care. As informed consumers, patients can choose to visit a radiologist that has positive patient reviews and leave behind one with negative reviews.

“Patients have more access to information than ever before,” Kemp explained. “They are becoming more informed consumers in everything. They don’t just trust that we are doing the right things. We need to tell them that we are doing the right thing and show them and prove that to them.”

In radiology, ensuring a positive and relaxing patient experience has more implications than obtaining patient trust. A relaxed patient could be the difference between a usable and unusable scan.

“If we can make our patients more comfortable and more satisfied that the outcomes are going to be better, meaning better patient care,” Kemp concluded.

“If the patient is comfortable during her exam, she is going to be less likely to move. If the patient is comfortable and at ease with the technologist and the radiology department, she is going to share more about her personal history. If the radiologist knows the patients personal history, the more likely to give an accurate appropriate read that addresses the question at hand.”

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