Why Intermountain’s Former CMO Thinks There’s ROI For Patient Experience Investments

What qualifies as a good patient experience at a hospital? Based on patient feedback, the answer boils down to one thing, according to Shannon Connor Phillips, who served as Intermountain Healthcare’s chief medical officer for ambulatory care until she began a sabbatical a few weeks ago.

Once a provider comes to a patient’s bedside, the patient can immediately tell whether they’re mentally present, Phillips said. If their provider doesn’t seem fully there, patients usually have a negative experience that leaves them with not only a bad taste in their mouths, but also a feeling of being undervalued. Phillips shared this knowledge Sunday during a panel at Engage at HLTH, a patient engagement summit hosted by MedCity News in Las Vegas.

She described a model that was implemented for inpatient care at Intermountain during her time at the health system. Under the model, a patient’s care team — including doctors, social workers and consulting specialists — would come to their room at a scheduled time to discuss treatment plans and progress. The care team would always begin these sessions by asking patients and their families what their questions are and what they’re most worried about. The answers to these questions get written on a whiteboard in the patient’s room so that any other clinicians who may enter to care for the patient are aware of their priorities.

Hospitals should adopt care models like this, according to Phillips. But fellow panelist Peter Durlach, Nuance Communications’ chief strategy officer, pointed out an important consideration: it’s difficult to invest in building these types of care models and patient experience initiatives when hospital finances are so dire

He drew attention to “a really foundational” problem — the fact that the inpatient care model is “designed for throughput.” When hospitals are focused on getting as many patients they can in and out of the hospital so they can get paid and therefore keep their doors open, the patient experience often takes a backseat.

Phillips acknowledged that this glum reality is true, but said that patient experience investments can still create great value for hospitals and health systems. 

Besides the obvious human element, it makes sense to her why hospitals would want to put money and energy into improving the patient experience. These investments can help hospitals build brand loyalty and market share because people like to talk about their experiences receiving healthcare — both good and bad. When word gets around that a hospital provides non-rushed, empathetic care, more people will want to come there for treatment, Phillips argued.

Panelist Erica Olenski Johansen, the founding executive director of August’s Artists, agreed with Phillips’ remarks. Johansen’s organization is named after her son, who is almost four years old and was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was five months old. The organization provides access to art materials for pediatric patients and their families so that their time in the hospital can be more enjoyable. 

As August’s primary caregiver, Johansen has a valuable perspective on what hospitals can do to make the patient experience better. 

For example, pediatric patients’ conditions often require them to stay in the hospital for days on end. These patients’ families have to be at the hospital, but they also need to keep working so they can pay their bills and keep the insurance they need for their child’s care. Something as simple as ensuring the hospital has reliable WiFi that parents can use during situations like these are considerations that hospitals need to pay more attention to, Johansen pointed out.

She also suggested that hospitals think about how they can create a more “psychologically safe environment” for families and patients, as the circumstances they are going through are incredibly emotionally and mentally taxing.

Photo: HLTH