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Designing Powerful Patient Experiences

May 02, 2013 9:38 AM | Christiaan Killian (Administrator)
Gregory Petersburg, DO

Why does a cup of coffee cost more at a trendy café like Starbucks than it does at the corner diner or when brewed at home? It’s the value that the experience holds for the individual that determines the worth of the offering and the work of the business. Marketers understand this principle and the market value of experiences to consumers. Automobile ads don’t sell cars; they sell the driving experience. Restaurants advertise the ‘fine dining experience.’ Travel agents no longer book vacations; they book ‘adventures’. And let’s not forget the granddaddy of experience sellers: Disneyland. The product they sell is ‘experiences’. You may not have given it much thought, but the same principle applies to your medical practice.

Just delivering great service to your patients is no longer a winning strategy. Aging baby boomers already expect great service. And if you’re still competing on the basis of price, then you are offering little or no true differentiation from the competition. What would your patients really value? Better yet, for what would they pay a premium? Experiences!

It’s not that we don’t give our patients experiences. In fact, the medical profession already has a long history of creating patient experiences. It’s just that these experiences are not particularly positive, more often than not. How many patients can honestly say they enjoy and look forward to going to the doctor? Not many. That’s because, in large part, the experiences patients have are mostly unintended, the result of not understanding the principles of experience design and execution. Yet, the kinds of experiences we could create for patients hold the potential to significantly improve clinical outcomes, patient compliance, patient satisfaction and loyalty, provider satisfaction, and, yes, even profit margins. Ideal patient experiences can give them hope and inspiration, and are powerful catalysts for them to take action. In essence, experiences are what change lives. With a little planning you can create meaningful and memorable experiences that improve the quality of your practice and your patient’s life.

The following steps will guide you through the processes of creating unique experiences in your practice:

1. Make the Experience Intentional

What is the ultimate take-away experience you want your patient to have? Inspiration? Motivation? Transformation? Begin with the end in mind and engineer backwards, tweaking all of your practice processes in ways that contribute to the experience. Choosing a theme for your work is a helpful starting point for creating powerful experiences. How likely would you be to finish reading a novel if it had no theme? You would probably close the book before finishing the first chapter. A theme is essential, as it conveys the central idea of a story (or your work) and is necessary in order to fully and effectively engage an audience (i.e., your patients). Themes can be based on almost anything: people, places, events, times, ideas, messages, etc. Once you have your theme, build a story around it.

2. Make the Experience Individual

Give each patient the feeling that every interaction with him or her, and everything you do for him or her, is just for him or her. (-Or – Give your patients the feeling that every interaction with them, and everything you do for them, is just for them). You can personalize everything, such as phone calls, appointments, and patient handouts.

‘Mass customization’ is one way: Make small but personalized modifications and additions to standardized services, materials, or products that otherwise are the same for all patients. ‘Organizational memory’ is a way to give the patient the feeling that everyone in your organization knows and remembers the patient in a personal way. Your medical records already include the patient’s date of birth, so that information can help everyone in your organization to remember and celebrate the patient’s birthday. Similarly, you could collect personalized information in a new patient intake form that could be used in a variety of ways: favorite foods and music, who they admire and why, what kinds of things inspire them, where they go to ‘recharge their batteries’, what they list as personal strengths/weaknesses/fears, etc.?

3. Make the Experience Interactive

Expand the patient experience to include the time and space before, during, and after the visit. Examples might include pre- and post-visit phone calls, newsletters, interactive web tools, and ‘homework’ assignments.

4. Interpret the Experience

All work is theatre. Yes, even health care! Your office is the stage, the rooms in your office are different sets, stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs are props, your white lab coat is your costume, you and your staff (nurse, receptionist, etc.) are the actors playing different roles, the things you say to patients (greetings, patient interview, advice for each medical condition, etc.) are the scripts. The reason for an appointment might be a ‘subplot’ in the patient’s life journey. Thinking of your theme and storyline (see above), imagine ways that your work processes can be applied or modified to fully and effectively engage your patient (the audience) in the story. How will you choreograph your ‘performance’, the sets, props, costumes, actors’ roles, scripts, etc.?

5. Make the Experience Inspiring

Become a storytelling organization. Medical practitioners have become so fixated on data as the focus of communication with patients that we have forgotten the most time-proven method in all of human history for passing along understanding and wisdom, for inspiring and motivating – storytelling. Data and information need stories to give them context. Stories add flesh and bone to the data and information. But the way stories are told is often as important as the story itself. Tell stories that are authentic to you and tell them with passion. Don’t be afraid to share your own story. Tap into timeless methods employed by every culture, religion, and organization to inspire: rituals, traditions, and ceremonies. Add them or incorporate them into your work and use them often.

6. Institute the Experiences

Incorporate these design principles and the delivery of patient experiences into all of the organization’s operational systems. Make it a permanent and ongoing part of the overall organizational culture, and commit it to words in an organizational ‘manifesto’ (A manifesto is a published/public declaration of your principles, intentions, and objectives). Tie measures (e.g., patient experience surveys rather, than service satisfaction surveys) of the effectiveness of your designed experiences to financial rewards, or give them teeth that bite (e.g., financially), if we fail to fulfill.

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