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A solid definition of the patient experience is elusive. But before we can improve it, we need to have a working definition of how to think about it. There are two reasons why a concise definition is critical. First, we must define the patient experience for patients regarding what is important; otherwise patients will define it for us. Generally, patients are unsophisticated healthcare consumers. A particular experience equates to quality in a patient’s mind. Patients often use proxies to judge our effectiveness. These proxies are things they do understand and can easily relate to their personal experience. We need to make sure that they pick the right proxies or at least understand their environment as it relates to their proxies.

Second, before you can improve an organization’s patient experience, it must be clearly defined so that everyone in that organization—every caregiver—knows how it relates to his or her job and what must be done to improve it. If you cannot clearly communicate to caregivers the patient experience definition and expectations, it will be impossible for them to understand how to frame improvement tactics. Caregivers will not be sure what they are improving. Successful change management requires that all personnel in an organization, at every level—from the receptionist scheduling the appointment to the director of supply chain—understand exactly what the initiative means to them and what it is that you want them to do. Not having a unifying definition creates confusion for leaders and managers trying to affect it, as well as for frontline caregivers who are trying to deliver on it.

The definition also must account for the clinical realities of hospital operations and everyday patient care. People must understand how the definition fits into the overall scheme of what they do every day. Nurses, doctors, and other caregivers must go about the business of delivering care to patients. These professionals are very busy, and they don’t have time to study and understand a definition. There can be no room for interpretation. Getting people to understand the definition quickly will make it practical and drive rapid adoption. Adoption will also improve if the framework naturally fits with what people do every day.

A concise definition of the patient experience must factor into other hospital programs that are well established and critical to the functioning of a healthcare system, namely safety and quality. Patient experience cannot be viewed as a stand-alone hospital initiative. Patient experience, safety, and quality are inextricably linked, and tactics that improve the patient experience, such as cultural development, certainly impact safety and quality as well. An effective definition must align these links. If we define the patient experience too narrowly, such as related to patient perceptions or satisfaction, then we run the risk of marginalizing more important issues, such as patient safety.

Shortly after I became CXO, the chief nursing officer and I convened an enterprise ...

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