There has never been a better time to fine tune the “patient experience” – but it can seem a daunting task. Sam Hudson looks at how it can be achieved in manageable steps.

If you have been working hard to promote patient engagement and experience you could feel that your time has come – never before has this area of work had such a high profile – but how can we make the most of this opportunity to achieve a real difference for patients?

On the face of it, experience can seem quite simple – we all have experiences, every day, both good and bad, but have you noticed that the better or worse the experience is from the average, the more people you tell?

It is true that we all experience things slightly differently and each experience itself is made up of a number of experiences, or “moments” that are all measured against our original expectations. 

In the retail, travel and hospitality industries these moments are big business and often carefully orchestrated so that our senses are stimulated and emotions evoked without us consciously realising it.

NHS services have the potential to do just that – to plan for experience. 

Imagine an NHS service that starts with the patient – a service that listens to patient and family needs, and then designs the experience to meet those needs.

However, as healthcare providers, this can feel overwhelming – how on earth can the service respond to all of these differing patient needs?  How can it provide a positive experience for all patients? 

The philosophy of “no decision about me, without me” now sits alongside a number of national policy drivers requiring healthcare organisations and professionals to continually measure and improve patient experience, such as the outcomes framework and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines for patient experience and mental health service user experience.

The aim of these policy imperatives is to provide a patient-centred healthcare service that meets the physical and emotional needs of the population. 

Practical steps

New help for commissioners and providers is available to improve the patient experience: Transforming Patient Experience: the essential guide. It includes evidence from King’s College London and King’s Fund research titled What Matters to Patients? Developing the Evidence Base for Measuring and Improving Patient Experience.

People value efficient processes, want to feel informed, supported and listened to so they can make meaningful decisions about their care – and the one thing we hear again and again is that they want to be “treated as a person, not a number”.

In practice, this will be about training and focusing on staff delivering the relational aspects of care such as: good communication, emotional support, respect, empathy, involvement in decisions and good information provision.

This has to happen alongside the development of systems that support the functional aspects of care, like joined-up services and providing physical comfort. These aspects are described by the NHS patient experience framework.

The business incentive

What we can learn from the commercial sector is that the staff experience and the organisational culture that supports it are the most important elements of any customer experience programme.

In successful commercial organisations, customer experience data constantly informs training and support decisions made for staff.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why people choose to work in public services and I would imagine that in many cases this would include a range of values that are potentially a powerful lever to build interest in delivering positive patient experiences and the service improvements that are required to make this happen.

Experience impacts on organisational reputation and can be linked to better health outcomes. It is imperative that the NHS now makes a concerted effort to collect a body of evidence that will convince business leaders across the service of the importance of investing in improving patient experience.

This way of working will require cultural change. Any programme intended to improve patient experience needs to influence staff who have direct patient interaction, and those who work more indirectly, such as managers and corporate staff.

Services and the groups that commission them will need to work in partnership. The development of a new landscape for commissioning is an ideal opportunity to learn from existing effective practice and build on it in innovative ways.