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Patient experience: Your complete guide

12 min read
Find out what patient experience is, how you can improve it, and how it’s helping healthcare organizations re-imagine the experiences they deliver to their patients.


Since the beginning of 2020, healthcare systems around the world have modernized at an incredible rate, with patient experience at the heart of the transformation.

In this guide, we’ll explore what patient experience is, how it can be improved, and how it’s helping healthcare organizations reimagine patient-centered care.

Defining patient experience

The complete patient experience measures how pleased or dissatisfied people are during their entire journey through the healthcare continuum.

In other words, as defined by The Beryl Institute, patient experience is:

“The sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence a patient’s perspective along the continuum of care.”

There are four critical components of that definition we’ll dive into.

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The sum of all interactions

A patient’s perspective about their medical care isn’t decided by a single service or visit, but rather is influenced by all the touchpoints along the patient journey, with each one playing a part in influencing their experience. Understanding how each process can be changed to improve the overall patient experience is essential.

An organization’s culture

The vision and values at every level of a healthcare organization play a vital role in the delivery of safe, convenient, and competent healthcare. From nurses and doctors on the frontlines, to contact center agents and back-office staff, every healthcare employee has a role to play when it comes to patient experience.

Patient perceptions

This covers what is recognized, understood, and remembered by patients. It’s important to remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all — each individual’s perception of care from providers and health systems will be impacted by their own circumstances, beliefs, values, and cultural background.

The continuum of care

When measuring the patient experience, many health systems only focus on what happens in healthcare facilities, like at a hospital or during a clinician visit. However, an individual’s experience with the healthcare system starts long before, and continues long after they receive services. World-class patient experience programs understand the role of a healthcare provider before, during, and after care delivery and respond to patients’ needs at every stage along that journey.

Is anyone really “satisfied” with healthcare?

We’re often asked about the difference between patient satisfaction and patient experience. Patient satisfaction is a legacy concept — a measurement of a single interaction that uses a metric more applicable to buying a product from Amazon, or streaming a film on Netflix. It ignores every activity outside of the specific interaction the patient was surveyed about and doesn’t truly link to patients’ expectations.

Let’s face it, nobody needs to be “satisfied” with their healthcare — they want safe, convenient, and competent care that leads to positive clinical outcomes. That’s the bar that healthcare providers should set out to meet, and therefore measure how they’re performing against.

None of those are measured by asking, “How satisfied were you with your hospital visit today?”

Instead, taking a patient-centered care approach and considering the holistic experience patients have across their journey with a provider offers much more actionable insights, at every level of the organization. When acted upon, this information can help improve health outcomes, patient safety, and quality of care.

Going from patient feedback to patient experience

All care providers get patient feedback. After all, funding and reimbursements depend on it – so measurement is nothing new in the industry. But measurement is not the goal. You need to be asking these key questions:

  • Are you listening on the right channels across the entire patient journey?
  • Does every team and department in the organization understand how they impact the patient experience?
  • And are those people empowered to take actions that will influence patient perceptions and contribute to a positive patient experience?

At Qualtrics, we work with hundreds of healthcare organizations to help them modernize their feedback programs and transform how they operate to put patients and families at the heart of every decision.

It comes down to three key things — listen, understand, and act.

Listen to patients across the entire patient journey

We know that a single interaction isn’t the only factor that influences patient experience. And today, patients interact with healthcare across myriad platforms, from social media, apps, and websites to more traditional settings like contact centers, clinics, and hospitals.

In a single journey, they’re most likely to use multiple channels. That can include reading online reviews in their search for a new provider, phoning to make an appointment or to check their coverage, receiving healthcare advice virtually, or visiting a physical location to receive care. Every one of those touchpoints come together to impact the overall patient experience, and not meeting their expectations on any one of those channels can make a difference.

The challenge for many healthcare providers is that traditionally, each channel has existed in a silo. Modern patient experience programs break down those silos by installing listening posts across all channels and bringing the data together into a single system.

This enables you to understand – across the entire patient journey – how each process contributes to the patient experience, and identify actions across the organization that you can take to improve it.

Understand your patients and tailor the experience

Having all your patient feedback in one place is a great starting point, but you need to be able to mine that patient experience data for rich insights.

Whether it’s structured data from your regulatory surveys, unstructured data from open-text feedback like online reviews or chatbot interactions, or operational data from your electronic medical record, you must analyze it all as a single data set to make sense of it all.

This means you’re not only breaking down silos to get a complete view of the patient experience, you’re also able to understand how each touchpoint is affecting it. It also opens up the ability to personalize the experience for your patients by understanding at a granular level what each person’s expectations and motivations are, so you can tailor the experiences you deliver at every touchpoint to ensure you meet their needs.

Act on insights at every level

A nurse acting on insights while smiling at a screen

In many organizations, this is where a lot of feedback programs fall short. Typical patient experience surveys can take you only so far. Insights are often delivered long after an interaction has occurred – when it’s probably too late to act on them – and often to senior leaders rather than the people who can do something about it.

As the industry responded to the challenges of COVID-19, we saw just how vital it is that healthcare organizations are able to take action quickly as patient needs change. A patient experience program needs to provide real-time insights at every level of the organization, alerting individuals to things they can do in the moment to help with quality improvement efforts.

For example, if a patient has an issue with a prescription after a visit to a clinic, that negative experience can be resolved immediately by triggering a call from a contact center agent to the provider who can rectify the situation the same day.

These one-to-one interactions are known as the “inner loop” — individual, real-time follow-up that enables you to step in and improve the patient experience. But there’s also the “outer-loop”, too — the more strategic actions that happen at an organization-wide level to solve the root cause of bad experiences.

Take our prescription issue again. Perhaps it was caused by a processing error that could potentially affect multiple patients. As well as closing the loop to resolve it at an individual level, you can also drive action at an organizational level and prevent it from being a problem for other patients in the future.

Imagine that in a system where reports are received once a year and delivered to a handful of senior executives, the same prescription issue could rear its head time and time again, impacting the experience of more patients, and costing the provider a small fortune in recovery costs (That’s if the insights ever even made it to the right teams of course!).

How a culture of action drives patient experience

Having the systems in place to empower individuals in the organization, at every level, to take action helps drive a cultural change, too – one where everybody understands and has the tools to create a positive patient experience. Your people, whether it’s nurses and doctors at the bedside, clinic administrators managing operations, or contact center agents, need to be able to access insights, and feel empowered to act on them.

But beyond that, they need to share the values and vision of the organization. If they understand the expectations, and have the training and resources to deliver on them, then you’re far more likely to deliver a good experience for patients.

As such, patient experience and employee experience go hand-in-hand. It’s the same approach with staff as it is with patients — gather feedback at every stage in the employee journey, understand the key drivers of the experience, and take action to improve them. Whether that’s improving manager effectiveness and employee engagement, or identifying opportunities to improve key stages in the employee journey – like onboarding or training – it all comes down to knowing which actions to take, and at what stage, to help your people be more successful.

It’s a key part of experience management, both in healthcare and other industries. At Qualtrics, we understand that no experience exists in a silo — engaged, motivated, and enabled staff are the interface between patients and the healthcare system. When staff have a good experience, patients are more likely to have the same.

An exciting time to be in healthcare

The healthcare industry has come a long way in the last decade. In the past year alone the pace of change has accelerated as the industry demonstrated that it is willing and able to respond quickly to the needs of patients.

The momentum we’ve built up is the starting point of a new era of healthcare – where every decision is taken with the patient experience in mind.

We have the tools, technology, and the desire to deliver patient-centered care healthcare facilities of all shapes and sizes. Our dedicated healthcare team already works with over 400 health systems around the world to help them design and improve the experiences they deliver for staff and patients, and we’ve seen some incredible success stories of how, with patients at the center, organizations are rethinking and redefining the experiences they deliver.

Get started today with our guide to modern patient experience programs