Patient Satisfaction Surveys: How Useful Are They?

Healthcare practice owners keep hearing that they need to conduct patient satisfaction surveys. After all, good survey feedback is a sign of great healthcare, right? Well, it turns out, not everyone thinks so.

The goals of patient surveys are clear. Let’s build doctor-patient relationships, identify important issues, and provide better care. But some practitioners believe surveys are too limited, too subjective. Some feel they completely miss the mark. So, what gives?

Are Patient Satisfaction Surveys Useful?

Measuring patient satisfaction isn’t a new concept. University of Notre Dame Professors Press and Ganey introduced the hospital survey back in 1985. Practitioners from across the U.S. soon followed suit. They realized the value of tracking patients’ perceptions of healthcare. Today, hundreds of thousands of patients answer satisfaction surveys every year.

The questions follow a familiar theme. How satisfied were you with the service you received? Did you feel the staff met your needs? How helpful was the staff that treated you? The reason these sound familiar is because they are the same questions you answer at the end of a hotel stay.  They ask whether you were comfortable during your stay but they don’t ask if the treatment was any good.

That said, comfort during a hospital stay is a big deal. Patients like surveys because they are simple and allow them to share their thoughts. Shivan Mehta, Associate Chief Innovation Officer at Penn Medicine thinks they’re important.  “Patients’ perceptions of their care are reflections of the doctor-patient relationship and include holistic aspects of healing and emotional well-being. If we care about the experience of our patients, why shouldn’t we measure it and strive to improve our performance?”

There is a problem, though. Patient satisfaction surveys have in some cases become a benchmark for healthcare performance.

Problems With Patient Satisfaction Surveys

Perhaps the biggest problem is that patient satisfaction surveys are often full of errors. Patients might not understand a question or check a random box because they are not feeling well. They might even fabricate answers… who is going to know?

Plus, a 2014 study concluded that “Patient satisfaction is not a clearly defined concept.” Researchers recommended that health care authorities develop a standardized tool to collect data. Yet the healthcare industry continues to use simple questionnaires to make complex decisions.

Some of these decisions involve payment. For example, Medicare reimbursement is sometimes based on patient satisfaction scores. “Bonuses [are] determined by comparing hospitals both on their adherence to clinical performance guidelines and on patients’ perception of the quality of care,” says Nina F. Geiger, writing for the American Journal of Nursing. “[The latter is] based on […] cleanliness of rooms, and whether clinicians treated patients with respect.” But is it fair that surveys help determine reimbursement when they’re not accurate and they don’t include patient outcomes?

Surveys have spread from hospitals to clinics to private practices nationwide. But they don’t measure the quality of the actual health care. That would need long-term follow-up and analysis. Until they can do that, the effectiveness of patient satisfaction surveys is debatable.

Finally, a discussion about surveys can’t leave out “feedback fatigue“. Yes, this is a real thing. So many companies ask customers for feedback, that people are getting tired. After all, endless surveys can feel like a waste of precious time. Some are choosing to ignore them.

Should You Conduct Patient Satisfaction Surveys?

If you run a private practice and you’d like to measure and improve operations, a survey might be worth a try. It can provide a glimpse into staff performance and productivity. But beyond those things, how useful it will be to you is unclear. At the end of the day, asking your patients how they are doing may get you similar results.

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