Hospitalists Play Vital Role in Patients’ View of Hospital Stay


Hospitalists are often perceived as the face of the hospital, whether that is their official responsibility or not. They are on the front lines of hearing, seeing, and understanding where gaps exist in a patient’s experience.

“Whenever I hear a patient complain, I can almost piece together what happened without having to interview other staff,” says Jairy C. Hunter III, MD, MBA, SFHM, associate CMO for care transitions at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Patient experience, which is not exactly the same as patient satisfaction but is often thought of interchangeably, is more important now than ever before as federal regulators use how patients view their hospital experience as a major factor in performance measures, reimbursement, incentives, and penalties.

“Up to this point, there hasn’t been as much accountability regarding customer satisfaction in our industry compared to other industries,” Dr. Hunter says.

The paradigm shift has occurred because payers are demanding it. They want value and satisfaction in what they are paying for. In fact, there is a movement to try to standardize procedures whenever possible, such as the amount of time it takes someone to answer a call bell or the volume of noise in a hallway.

“Patients are being asked questions about such topics in surveys,” Dr. Hunter says. “Although these types of questions don’t involve medical decision-making or a course of treatment, they do include personal interactions that influence how patients feel about their hospital experience.”

Another reason for the shift is the significant increase in the use of electronic communication devices and the explosion of online ratings of consumer products and services. Naturally, consumers want access to accurate and easy-to-use information about the quality of healthcare services.

Patient experience surveys focus on how patients’ experienced or perceived key aspects of their care, not how satisfied they were with their care.1 One way a hospital can measure patient experience is with the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey, which was developed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).2 Although other patient satisfaction/experience vendors offer surveys, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 states that all Inpatient Prospective Payment Systems (IPPS) hospitals who wish to receive their full annual payment update must collect and submit HCAHPS data to CMS.

The HCAHPS survey, which employs standardized survey instrument and data collection methodology to measure patients’ perspectives on hospital care, is administered to a random sample of patients throughout the year. CMS cleans, adjusts, and analyzes the data and then publicly reports the results. All CAHPS products are available at no cost at www.cahps.ahrq.gov.2

Christine Crofton, PhD, director of CAHPS in Rockville, Md., notes that the HCAHPS survey focuses on patient experience measures because they are considered more understandable, unambiguous, actionable, and objective compared to general satisfaction ratings. Although CAHPS surveys do ask respondents to provide overall ratings (e.g. rate the physician on a scale of one to 10), their primary focus is to ask patients to report on their experiences with specific aspects of care in order to provide information that is not biased by different expectations.

For example, if a patient doesn’t understand what symptoms or problems to report to his or her provider after leaving the hospital, the lack of understanding could lead to a complication, a worsening condition, or readmission.

“A specific survey question about written discharge instructions will give hospital administrators more actionable information concerning an increase in readmission rates than a response to a 10-point satisfaction scale,” Dr. Crofton explains.

Efforts to Improve

At medical institutions across the nation, hospitalists and their team members are making conscious efforts to improve the patient experience in light of the growing importance of surveys. Baylor Scott and White Health in Round Rock, Texas, offers a lecture series and provider coaching as part of its continuing education program. The training, says Trina E. Dorrah, MD, MPH, a BSWH hospitalist and physician director for quality improvement, encompasses such topics as:

  • Dealing with difficult patient scenarios;
  • Patient experience improvement tips;
  • Tips to improve providers’ explanations; and
  • Tips to improve patients’ understanding.

Dr. Dorrah uses one-on-one shadowing to help providers improve the patient experience.

“I accompany the provider when visiting the patient and observe his or her interactions,” she says. “This enables me to help providers to see what skills they can incorporate to positively impact patient experience.”

Interdisciplinary rounds have also helped to improve the patient experience.

“Patients want to know that their entire healthcare team is focused on them and that they are working together to improve their experience,” Dr. Dorrah says. On weekdays, hospitalists lead interdisciplinary rounds with the rest of the care team, including case management, nursing, and therapy. “We discuss our patients and ensure that we are all on the same page regarding the plan.”

In addition, hospitalists round with nurses each morning. “Everyone benefits,” Dr. Dorrah says. “The patient gets more coordinated care and the nurse is better educated about the plan of care for the day. The number of pages from the nurse to the physician is also reduced because the nurse better understands the care plan.”

BSWH, which uses Press Ganey Associates to administer HCAHPS surveys, considers the scores for the doctor communication domain when establishing a hospitalist team goal for the year.

“If our team reaches the goal, the leadership/administrative team rewards the hospitalist team with a financial bonus,” Dr. Dorrah says.

Lawrence General Hospital, in Lawrence, Mass., which also uses Press Ganey Associates to administer and manage its HCAHPS satisfaction surveys, is working to increase the ability of hospitalists and other caregivers to proactively meet and exceed patients’ needs with its Five-to-Thrive program. The program consists of these five strategies:

  • Care-Out-Loud: an initiative that charges every clinical and nonclinical staff member to be present, sensitive, and compassionate to the patient and explain each step of the clinical interaction;
  • Manager rounding on staff and patients;
  • Hourly staff rounding on patients;
  • Interdisciplinary bedside rounding; and
  • Senior leader rounding.
Dr. Valera

Dr. Valera

“It is based on best practice tactics that aim to improve the overall patient and family experience,” says Damaris Valera, MS, CMPE, director of the hospital’s Service Excellence Program.

Cogent Healthcare at University of Florida Health in Jacksonville, Fla., places a large emphasis on AIDET principles—acknowledge, introduce, duration, explanation, and thank you—during each patient encounter, says Larry Sharp, MD, SFHM, system medical director. AIDET principles entail offering a pleasant greeting and introducing yourself to patients, keeping patients abreast of wait times, explaining procedures, and thanking patients for the opportunity to participate in their care.

The medical director makes shadow rounds with providers and then ghost rounds by surveying the patients after rounds to get the patients’ direct feedback about encounters.

Dr. Sharp

Dr. Sharp

“We provide information to our providers from these rounds as a method to improve care,” Dr. Sharp says.

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago trains hospitalists on communication skills and consequently saw a trend toward improved satisfaction scores and used physician face cards to improve patients’ knowledge of the names and roles of physicians, which did not impact patient satisfaction, reports Kevin J. O’Leary, MD, MS, SFHM, associate professor of medicine, chief of the division of hospital medicine, and associate chair for quality in the department of medicine at Northwestern.3,4 Findings were published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

“These efforts have reinforced the need for multifaceted interventions,” Dr. O’Leary says. “Alone, each one has had little effect, but combined they may have a greater effect. The data is intended to be formative and to identify opportunities to learn.”

Additional improvements have been made due to a better understanding of drivers of low satisfaction.

“Unit medical directors [hospitalists] have started to visit patients to get a qualitative sense of what things affect patient experience,” Dr. O’Leary says. As a result, two previously unidentified issues—ED personnel making promises that can’t be kept to patients and patients receiving conflicting information from specialist consultants and hospitalists—surfaced which could now be addressed.”

Challenges and Limitations

Despite their best efforts to improve the patient experience, hospitalists face myriad obstacles. First, the HCAHPS survey asks about the collective care delivered by doctors during the hospitalization, as opposed to the care given by one particular hospitalist.

“One challenge hospitalists face by not having individual data is not knowing which hospitalists excel at the patient experience and which ones do not,” Dr. Dorrah says. “When no one feels that he or she is the problem, it is difficult to hold individual hospitalists accountable.”

One challenge hospitalists face by not having individual data is not knowing which hospitalists excel at the patient experience and which ones do not. When no one feels that he or she is the problem, it is difficult to hold individual hospitalists accountable.” —Dr. Dorrah

Another problem, Dr. Dorrah reports, stems from the fact that patients may see more than one physician—perhaps several hospitalists or specialists—during their hospitalization. When the HCAHPS survey asks patients to assess the care given by all physicians, patients consider the care given by multiple different physicians.

“Therefore, it is difficult to hold a particular hospitalist accountable for the physician communication domain when he or she is not the only provider influencing patients’ perceptions.”

Some hospital systems still have chosen to attribute HCAHPS doctor communication scores to individual hospitalists. These health systems address the issue by attributing the survey results to the admitting physician, the discharging physician, or all hospitalists who participated in the patient’s care.

“None of these methods are perfect, but health systems are increasingly wanting to ensure their inpatient providers are as invested in the patient experience as their outpatient physicians,” Dr. Dorrah says.

Another obstacle hospitalist groups face is the fact that more attention is given to raising HCAHPS survey scores than to improving the overall patient experience.

“In an effort to raise survey scores, hospitals often lose sight of what truly matters to patients,” Dr. Dorrah says. “Many things contribute to a positive or negative patient experience that are not necessarily measured by the survey. If you only pay attention to the survey, your hospital may overlook things that truly matter to your patients.”

Finally, with the increasing focus on the patient experience, the focus on maintaining a good provider experience can fall short.

“While it’s tempting to ask hospitalists to do more—see more patients, take on more responsibility, and participate in more committees—if hospitals fail to provide a positive environment for their hospitalists, they will have a difficult time fully engaging their hospitalists with the patient experience,” Dr. Dorrah says.

Some situations are out of the hospitalists’ hands. A patient may get upset or angry, and the cause is outside of anyone’s control.

“They may have to spend a night in the emergency department or have an unfavorable outcome,” Dr. Hunter says. “In those instances, employ the art of personal interaction—try to empathize with patients and let them know that you care about them.”

Another limitation, Dr. Sharp says, is that you can’t specifically script encounters to “teach to the test,” by using verbiage with the patient that is verbatim from the satisfaction survey questions.

“Nor can we directly control the temperature in patients’ rooms or the quality of their food,” he says. “We also do not have direct control over a negative experience in the emergency department before patients are referred to us, and many surveys show that it is very difficult to overcome a bad experience.”

Tools at Your Fingertips

As a result of the growing emphasis on patient-centered care, SHM created a Patient Experience Committee this year. SHM defines patient experience as “everything we say and do that affects our patients’ thoughts, feelings, and well-being.” The committee is looking at the issues at hand and defining the patient experience and what makes it good.

“We are looking at success stories, as well as not so successful stories, from some of our members to identify what seems to work and what doesn’t work,” says Dr. Sharp, a member of the committee. “By identifying best practices, we can then share this knowledge with the rest of the society, along with methods to implement these practices. We can centralize the gathered knowledge and data and then analyze and make it available to SHM members for their implementation and use.”

The hospitalist plays a key role in the patient experience. Now, more than ever, it’s important to do what you can to make it positive. Consider initiatives you might want to participate in—and perhaps even start your own.

Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.

10 Ways to Improve a Patient’s Experience Now

Sometimes it’s the little things that can have a big impact. You can improve your patients’ hospital experiences by doing just one of the following action items offered by Trina E. Dorrah, MD, MPH, hospitalist and physician director for quality improvement at Baylor Scott & White Health in Round Rock, Texas; Larry Sharp, MD, SFHM, system medical director for Cogent Healthcare at UF Health in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Adrienne Boissy, MD, MA, chief patient experience officer at the Cleveland Clinic.

1 Introduce yourself and your team to everyone in the room, and ask the patient to introduce any visitors.

2 Sit down during every patient visit. This makes a big difference in terms of how a patient will perceive your willingness to be there and the amount of time you actually spend with him or her.

3 Thank the patient for the opportunity to help care for him or her that day.

4 Be apologetic by saying something like, “I’m sorry to be meeting you like this” or “I’m sorry you are here.” No patient wants to be seeing you in the hospital.

5 Let the patient know that you care about and will take great care of him or her. It’s easy to forget to say what you’re really thinking.

6 Learn something about your patient that helps you appreciate him or her as a person. Say something like, “Tell me about yourself outside of diabetes.”

7 If you are in charge, say something like, “I am in charge of your care while you are here. You will see lots of other people, but until you hear it from me, it may not be true.”

8 Employ the teach-back method, in which you explain important information to the patient, then ask the patient to state it back in his or her own words. This will give you the opportunity to hear it as the patient understands it and to listen for any inaccuracies. Then correct anything

that was unclear and ask the patient to state his or her understanding.

9 Find a way to touch a patient’s shoulder, hand, or leg when appropriate. If you’re at a loss for words, this can go a long way in making someone feel more human.

10 Make sure you have answered everyone’s questions before leaving the room.


  1. Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers & Systems (CAHPS). CMS.gov. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  2. Survey of patients’ experiences (HCAHPS). Medicare.gov/Hospital Compare. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  3. O’Leary KJ, Darling TA, Rauworth J, Williams MV. Impact of hospitalist communication-skills training on patient-satisfaction scores. J Hosp Med. 2013;8(6):315-320.
  4. Simons Y, Caprio T, Furiasse N, Kriss M, Williams MV, O’Leary KJ. The impact of facecards on patients’ knowledge, satisfaction, trust, and agreement with hospital physicians: a pilot study. J Hosp Med. 2014;9(3):137-141.

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