Patient Satisfaction Surveys Not Accurate Measure of Hospitalists’ Performance


The results of [hospitalist-specific patient satisfaction] surveys may form the basis of legitimate, targeted feedback to hospitalists, who may then adjust their approach to patient interactions.

Feeling frustrated with your group’s patient-satisfaction performance? Wondering why your chief (fill in the blank) officer glazes over when you try to explain why your hospitalist group’s Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and System (HCAHPS) scores for doctor communication are in a percentile rivaling the numeric age of your children?

It is likely that the C-suite administrator overseeing your hospitalist group has a portion of their pay based on HCAHPS or other patient-satisfaction (also called patient experience) scores. And for good reason: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (HVBP) program that started Oct. 1, 2012, has placed your hospital’s Medicare reimbursement at risk based on its HCAHPS scores.

HVBP and Patient Satisfaction

Patient satisfaction will remain an important part of HVBP in the coming years. Table 1 (below) shows the domains that will be included in fiscal years 2014 (which starts Oct. 1, 2013), 2015, and 2016. Table 2 (below) depicts the percent weighting the patient-satisfaction domain will receive through 2016. You may recall that HVBP is a program in which all hospitals place 1% to 2% (2013 through 2017, starting at 1% and increasing each year by 0.25% so that by 2017%, it is 2%) of their CMS inpatient payments in a withhold pool and, based on performance, can make back some, all, or an amount in excess of the amount placed in the withhold pool.

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Table 1. Patient experience measures: hospital value-based purchasing
Source: Federal Register Vol. 78, No. 91; May 10, 2013; Proposed Rules, pp. 27609-27622.

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Table 2. Hospital value-based purchasing weighting
Source: Federal Register Vol.78, No.91; May 10, 2013; Proposed Rules, pp. 27609-27622.

End In Itself

A colleague of mine recently asked, “Is an increase in patient satisfaction associated with higher quality of care and better patient safety?” The point here: It doesn’t matter. Patient satisfaction is an end in itself, and we should strive to maximize it, or at least put ourselves in the place of the patient and design care accordingly.

For Hospitalists: A Starting Point

There is a conundrum for hospitalists vis-à-vis patient satisfaction. Follow this chain of logic: The hospitals at which we work are incented to perform well on the HCAHPS domains. Hospitals pay a lot for hospitalists. Hospitalists can impact many of the HCAHPS domains. So shouldn’t hospitalists be judged according to HCAHPS scores?

Yes and no.

HCAHPS as a survey is intended to measure a patient’s overall experience of receiving care in the hospital. For example, from the “Doctor Communication” domain, we have questions like “how often did doctors treat you with courtesy and respect?” And “how often did doctors explain things in a way you could understand?”

These questions, like all in HCAHPS, are not designed to get at individual doctor performance, or even performance of a group of doctors, such as hospitalists. Instead, they are designed to measure a patient’s overall experience with the hospitalization, and “Doctor Communication” questions are designed to assess satisfaction with “doctors” collectively.

The Need for Hospitalist-Specific Satisfaction Surveys

So while HCAHPS is not designed to measure hospitalist performance with regard to patient satisfaction, it is a reasonable interim step for hospitals to judge hospitalists according to HCAHPS. However, this should be a bridge to a strategy that adopts hospitalist-specific patient-satisfaction questionnaires in the future and not an end in itself.

Why? Perhaps the biggest reason is that HCAHPS scores are neither specific nor timely enough to form the basis of improvement efforts for hospitalists. If a hospitalist receives a low score on the “Doctor Communication” domain, the scores are likely to be three to nine months old. How can we legitimately assign (and then modify) behaviors based on those scores?

Further, because the survey is not built to measure patient satisfaction specifically with hospitalists, the results are unlikely to engender meaningful and sustained behavior change. Hospitalists I talk to are generally bewildered and confused by HCAHPS scores attributed to them or their groups. Even if they understand the scores, I almost never see true quality improvement (plan-do-study-act) based on specific HCAHPS results. Instead, I see hospitalists trying to adhere to “best practices,” with no adjustments made along the way based on performance.

Nearly all the prominent patient satisfaction vendors have developed a survey instrument specifically designed for hospitalists. Each has an approach to appropriately attribute performance to the hospitalist in question, and each has a battery of questions that is designed to capture patient satisfaction with the hospitalist. Although use of these surveys involves an added financial commitment, I submit that because hospitalists have an unparalleled proximity to hospitalized patients, such an investment is worthy of consideration and has an accompanying business case, thanks to HVBP. The results of these surveys may form the basis of legitimate, targeted feedback to hospitalists, who may then adjust their approach to patient interactions. Such performance improvement should result in improved HCAHPS scores.

In sum, hospitalists should pay close attention to patient satisfaction and embrace HCAHPS. However, we should be looking beyond HCAHPS to survey instruments that fairly and accurately measure our performance. Such surveys will be more widely accepted by the hospitalists they are measuring, and will allow hospitalists to perform meaningful quality improvement based on the results. Although hospitalist-specific surveys will require an investment, the increased patient satisfaction that results should be the basis of a favorable return on that investment.

Dr. Whitcomb is medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. He is co-founder and past president of SHM. Email him at wfwhit@comcast.net.

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