Move to Allow Patients to Request 'Refund' Appealing and Risky


We’ve all seen hundreds of commercials from companies advertising products and services with a money-back guarantee. The Men’s Warehouse, for example, has been promising men across the globe for over a decade, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it!” But to date, no one has made such a “guarantee” in the healthcare industry. Buying a suit is not exactly like getting your gallbladder removed.

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We know that medical diagnoses and treatments are filled with uncertainty in expected processes and outcomes, because the factors that are dependent on these processes and outcomes are endless. These include patient factors (overall health, functional status, comorbid conditions), procedural factors (emergency versus elective, time of day or night), and facility factors (having the optimal team with skills that match the patient need, having all the right products and equipment). Although we know that many medical procedures have a relatively predictable risk of complications, unpredictable complications still occur, so how can we ever offer a guarantee for the interventions we perform on patients?

First of Its Kind

David Feinberg, MD, MBA, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, is doing just that. This healthcare system has developed an application, called the Geisinger ProvenExperience, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone. After a procedure, each patient is given a code for the condition that was treated. With that code, the patient can enter feedback on the services provided and can then request a refund if they are not fully satisfied.

Most remarkably, the request for a refund is based on the judgment of the recipient, not on that of the provider(s). At a recent public meeting, Dr. Feinberg said of the new program: “We’re going to do everything right. That’s our job, that’s our promise to you … and you’re the judge. If you don’t think so, we’re going to apologize, we’re going to try to fix it for the next guy, and, as a small token of appreciation, we’re going to give you some money back.”1

Although many are skeptical about whether or not the program will be successful, much less viable, Dr. Feinberg contends that early feedback on the program has shown that most patients don’t actually want their money back. Instead, if their needs have not been met, most have just wanted a sincere apology and a commitment to make things better for others. Dr. Feinberg also contests that even if this is not the best or only approach to improving healthcare (quickly), we should all feel compelled to do something about our repeated failures in meeting patient expectations in the quality and/or experience of their care; and because no other industry works this way, other than healthcare. Typically, when consumers get fed up with poor service in other industries, disruptive innovations (Uber, for example) are created to satisfy customers’ desires.

A New Paradigm?

In healthcare, patients certainly should be dissatisfied if they experience a preventable harm event. Some types of harm are considered “always preventable,” such as wrong-site surgery. These events are extremely rare and, thus, do not constitute most cases of harm in hospitals these days. Such “never events” are relatively well defined and have been adopted for nonpayment by Medicare and other insurers, which can serve to buffer a patient’s financial liability in the small number of these cases. For other, more common, types of preventable harm, some hospitals have instituted apology and disclosure policies, and some will also relieve the patient of the portion of the bill attributable to the preventable harm. But not all hospitals have adopted such policies, despite the fact that they are widely endorsed by influential agencies, including The Joint Commission, the American Medical Association, Leapfrog Group, the National Quality Forum, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

And, even for hospitals that have adopted such “best practice” policies, there is not always clear consensus on what constitutes preventable harm. Generally, the “judgment call” about what constitutes preventable harm is made by healthcare systems and providers—not patients. In addition, many cases of harm that are not necessarily preventable can often result in great dissatisfaction for the patient. There are countless stories of patients who are unfortunately harmed in the course of medical procedures, but who were informed of the possible risks of the procedure and consented to have the procedure performed despite the risks. These situations, which are agonizingly difficult for the system, the providers, and the patients, have no good solutions. Systems cannot “own” all harm, such as those resulting from the disease process itself or from risky and invasive procedures intended to benefit the patient. And there is ongoing inconsistency in healthcare systems when it comes to their willingness and ability to consistently define preventable harm or to disclose, apologize, and forgive payments in such cases.

So, while this move to allow patients to ask for a “refund” seems both extremely appealing and extremely risky, it certainly seems as though it will greatly enhance the trust of patients and their families in the Geisinger Health System.

I, among others, will eagerly follow the results of this program; while getting a cholecystectomy is not the same as buying a men’s suit, I do hope that someday, I will be able to say to every patient entering my healthcare system that before they leave, “You’re going to like the way you feel. I guarantee it!” TH

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at scheured@musc.edu.


1. Guydish M. Geisinger CEO: money-back guarantee for health care coming. November 6, 2015. Times Leader website. Available at: http://timesleader.com/news/492790/geisinger-ceo-money-back-guarantee-for-health-car-coming. Accessed December 5, 2015.

2. Luthra S. When something goes wrong at the hospital, who pays? November 11, 2015. Kaiser Health News. Available at: http://khn.org/news/when-something-goes-wrong-at-the-hospital-who-pays/?utm_source=Managed&utm_campaign=9e17712a95-Quality+%26+Patient+Safety+Update&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ebe1fa6178-9e17712a95-319388717. Accessed December 5, 2015.

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