Shaun Frost: Why Hospital Patients' Expectations Should Dictate Their Care


By Shaun Frost, MD, SFHM
Perhaps by focusing so intently on quantifying how happy patients are with their care, we have distracted ourselves from the real goal of creating patient experiences that enable optimal healing.

Barriers to Understanding Patient Expectations

  • Time availability. Busy clinicians might not have adequate time to discuss expectations with their patients.
  • Illness acuity. Emergent and urgent illnesses require immediate decision-making that might impede full exploration of patient preferences.
  • Healthcare literacy. Healthcare is complex, and patients frequently do not understand the complexities. Furthermore, patients might not know how to articulate their expectations (and thus require physician assistance to do so).
  • Patient empowerment. Patients might not believe it is acceptable to ask their care providers to consider their preferences and goals.
  • Culture of paternalism. Although some patients prefer their physicians to unilaterally make healthcare decisions, many want a voice in decision-making. Care providers need to respect this and resist the temptation to routinely assume a paternalistic role in decision-making.
  • Insufficient documentation. Patient care preferences are infrequently documented in a portable fashion that is readily transmissible between care providers.

It is difficult to disagree that patients and their families deserve to be satisfied with the care they receive, and furthermore that a satisfying care experience is the foundation upon which the ability to heal is based. Mention the subject of patient satisfaction, however, to care providers, and prepare for many to respond negatively. For most, this frustration likely stems from the challenges associated with satisfaction measurement, and the application of this measurement to provider performance reporting and reimbursement. Perhaps by focusing so intently on quantifying how happy patients are with their care, we have distracted ourselves from the real goal of creating patient experiences that enable optimal healing.

In some respects, healthcare’s preoccupation with satisfaction measurements seems analogous to administering a final examination before teaching the course material. If so, at this juncture, it would be prudent to back up and examine the curriculum required to master the subject matter necessary to perform well on the test. To this end, it is necessary to:

Identify the contributors to a satisfying patient experience, and Focus specifically on understanding patient expectations.

Expectation Examination

An essential reading on the subject of patient experience and satisfaction is a July/August 2005 article in The Hospitalist titled “Patient Satisfaction: the Hospitalist’s Role,” in which Patrick J. Torcson, MD, MMM, FACP, SFHM, introduces “The First Law of Service.”1 According to this law, satisfaction can be mathematically defined as equal to patients’ perceptions of the care they received minus their expectations for that care (satisfaction=perception–expectation). Accordingly, if perception meets or exceeds expectation, an associated degree of satisfaction will be generated.

Both perceptions and expectations can be affected to create satisfaction. Remodeling a hospital lobby is an example of an effort to primarily influence patient perception. When considering efforts to influence patient expectations, it is useful to think of universal versus individual patient requirements, needs, desires, values, and goals. Examples of universal patient expectations (meaning expectations held by all or a majority of patients) would include receiving warm meals at scheduled times, having call lights answered in a timely manner, understanding the side effects of medications, and receiving instructions at the time of discharge. Examples of individual patient expectations (meaning expectations that are personally held by individual patients because of reasons unique to individual circumstances not common to everyone) would be need for low-cost medications due to economic hardship, prioritization of functional improvement versus pain elimination, and tolerance of treatment-related side effects.

It might be fair to say that in its pursuit to create satisfying patient experiences, our healthcare system has focused more on influencing perception and universal patient expectations than it has on addressing unique, personally held patient interests. In the future, we should attend more diligently to individual expectations. By doing so, patients will be better engaged, providers will be better informed, and satisfaction will follow.

Shared Decision-Making

You wouldn’t think of retaining a real estate agent to assist you in purchasing a home without informing that person about your personal needs. In order to satisfy you, the agent must understand what you expect in regard to such issues as price, square footage, yard size, community amenities, school district, proximity to work, etc. Just as your needs in shopping for a home can only be met by considering your personal expectations, your patient’s needs can only be met by understanding their individual healthcare requirements.

Unfortunately, understanding an individual patient’s expectations about their healthcare is more challenging than outlining a list of requirements for their ideal home. Although the reasons for this are multiple (see “Barriers to Understanding Patient Expectations,” left), the solution in large part rests in the application of shared decision-making (SDM).

SDM is defined as a collaborative communication process between provider and patient intended to help the patient decide among multiple acceptable healthcare choices in accordance with their preferences and values. SDM has been demonstrated to positively impact patient satisfaction, as well as care quality, resource utilization, and healthcare costs. A cornerstone feature of SDM is the use of decision aids to assist patients in identifying their personal healthcare expectations while simultaneously educating them about how those expectations apply to care plan options. Decision aids also benefit care providers by creating a standardized framework by which to solicit patients’ input regarding their preferences. When navigated appropriately, SDM balances the clinician’s expertise and knowledge with the patient’s goals and values.

Recent investigations into the application of SDM to HM practice have touted its effectiveness (e.g. when applied to low-risk chest pain evaluations) and questioned the creation of unintended negative consequences (e.g. on hospital resource consumption and affordability).2,3 Despite limited data in the HM setting, several literature reviews examining the effectiveness of SDM across various care sites consistently linked it to greater patient satisfaction.4

It is important to realize that policymakers are lauding the promise of SDM and incorporating its use into rules, regulations, and funding opportunities. For example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires SDM to participate in its accountable-care organization (ACO) programs, and several states recently have enacted legislation to promote SDM. Expect thus to experience future pressure to apply SDM in your hospitalist practice. Organizations dedicated to the advancement of SDM include the Society for Participatory Medicine, the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, the Society for Medical Decision Making, and the Mayo Clinic. More information and resources are available on their websites.


Satisfaction surveys are tools for measuring the quality of patient care experiences. Although satisfaction surveying is an inexact science, and the application of survey results to performance evaluation is challenging, we must remember that the goal is to optimize patient experience. Necessary in the creation of a satisfying patient experience is a robust understanding of patient expectations. SDM is a promising communication strategy that can help both providers and patients better identify the personally held values and goals that determine patient care expectations.

Dr. Frost is president of SHM.


  1. Torcson, P. Patient satisfaction: the hospitalist’s role. The Hospitalist website. Available at: http://www.the-hospitalist.org/details/article/256805/Patient_Satisfaction_the_Hospitalists_Role.html. Accessed Jan. 30, 2013.
  2. Hess E, et al. The chest pain choice decision aid. A randomized trial. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2012;5:251-259.
  3. Tak, HJ, Meltzer, D. Effect of patient preference in medical decision-making on inpatient care [abstract]. J Hosp Med. 2012;7(Suppl 2):91.
  4. Hostetter, M, Klein S. Helping patients make better treatment choices with decision aids. The Commonwealth Fund website. Available at: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/Newsletters/Quality-Matters/2012/October-November/In-Focus.aspx. Accessed Jan. 30, 2013.

Next Article:

   Comments ()