Defining the future of patient feedback: An executive Q&A with Brian Wynne, Vice President, Growth Team at NRC Health

COVID-19 has accelerated a number of developments in care delivery. Long-awaited initiatives like telehealth and online appointment-scheduling are suddenly fixtures of the patient experience. One domain of health-system operations, however, has not yet undergone the same transformation: patient feedback.

Brian Wynne, Vice President of the Growth Team at NRC Health, believes it’s time for organizations to embrace the future of feedback. In this Q&A, he shares some ideas on how healthcare leaders can modernize their feedback operations and put their newly-acquired data to effective use. 

How—and why—is patient feedback lagging behind other developments in healthcare? 

Generally, feedback is not quite tracking the pace of innovation in the industry at large. Especially today, when COVID-19 is pushing so many digital innovations forward. 

This inertia is most visible in two areas.

First, in the content of patient-experience surveys. Most standard feedback instruments were created a long time ago—in some cases, decades ago. In the time since, customer demographics, needs, and preferences have all shifted dramatically. Outdated survey questions can fail to capture meaningful consumer experiences, and will therefore produce less-reliable data for healthcare leaders.

Second, in the modality of survey delivery. For the most part, legacy outreach and feedback collection occurs weeks after a care encounter via snail-mail. Most customers, however, would prefer to give their feedback digitally, and immediately after their experiences. This may be why, for example, average HCAHPS response rates hover around 26.7%. By contrast, when health systems upgrade to digital delivery, their response rates can improve by as much as 22%.  

If organizations hope to capture more meaningful feedback data, updating both survey content and modalities should be a priority. 

Why does this matter? How do outdated feedback operations affect the data?

It’s important because, in data analysis, both quantity and quality matter. Sub-optimal feedback mechanisms compromise both.

As I mentioned, outdated survey modalities can both depress response rates and create a feedback lag. A small n-size in survey responses makes it hard to draw meaningful conclusions from the data, and weeks-delayed experience-feedback data makes conversations with stakeholders difficult to hold. “Data cynicism” is real and can lay waste to efforts to enhance the patient experience.

Data quality also matters. Too often, traditional surveys restrict themselves to simple, multiple-choice questions. While these can be important for standardizing feedback, they also lack contextual richness. Without it, leaders may have trouble pinpointing specific areas for intervention. 

This is why open-ended patient comments can be much more helpful. They give consumers a voice—on their own terms and in their own words. 

Once organizations have this data, what’s the best way to use it?

The most obvious answer is to use the data for experiential improvement. When data is timely and properly analyzed, it yields fine-grained insight for action.

Crucially, however, there are important use-cases for feedback data that go beyond what happens in the hospital. The most important of these is service recovery. 

Even the most reliable institutions encounter errors in service. Often, what defines high-performing organizations is how they react to such setbacks. Prompt, appropriate action can win back the goodwill of frustrated customers. Delayed action—or worse, no action at all—risks alienating them forever.

A robust data-collection process, coupled with a screening mechanism for service recovery, can make all the difference for organizations trying to retain their customers. 

A further use for feedback data is in service of transparency. The surging demand for transparent healthcare data is a trend that institutions should not resist. 90% of healthcare consumers start their healthcare journey online, and 60% of consumers select their doctor based primarily on online ratings and reviews. It’s essential for organizations to convert patient feedback to online ratings and reviews, and credibly present these to consumers. That’s only possible when the underlying data is sound. 

How might all these efforts transform the patient-provider relationship?

NRC Health’s research has consistently found that consumers are ready for a deeper relationship with their healthcare providers. That’s even more true now, in the midst of a public-health crisis. 

Consumers don’t just want providers who will mend their illnesses and injuries. They’re looking for partners who can help them guide their decision-making, preserve their wellness, and improve their quality of life. Customers are, in effect, inviting providers to play a deeper role in their lives. 

In tracking, understanding, and exceeding the customer’s evolving expectations, leaders have a unique opportunity to fundamentally reshape the patient-provider relationship. 

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