Should we be keeping patients happy?

I posted an article to Facebook yesterday regarding patient satisfaction, and to be honest, I was somewhat surprised at just how many people – both medical and non-medical – responded to it.  The article was about the “Cost of Satisfaction” out of UC Davis and was published in 2012.  The gist of the article? That happy patients don’t have better outcomes and incur more expenses.  It’s an opinion that many in the medical community have held for a long time – that increased patient satisfaction scores don’t necessarily correlate to quality care.  It’s true that satisfied patients are more adherent to physician recommendations and generally are more loyal to their physicians, but higher satisfaction scores often correlate to physicians giving into patient request for “discretionary services” that may be of little or no medical benefit (for example, MRIs for low back pain).  In fact, some of these services can be harmful by leading to overtreatment, for example.

The researchers at UC Davis actually searched the data and corroborated what many had suspected.  They ultimately found that higher patient satisfaction was associated with lower emergency department use but higher inpatient utilization, greater total health care expenditures, and higher expenditures on prescription drugs.  The most satisfied patients also had a significantly greater mortality risk compared to least satisfied patients, when controlling for a multitude of variables.  Satisfaction directly correlated with the extent to which physicians were willing to fulfill patient expectations.

I’ve commented before on the danger of “patient satisfaction surveys”, and though I think they have some merit, I dont think they should be used as a strong regulatory tool (the Affordable Care Act withholds 1% of total Medicare reimbursements for the worst performers).  But as I’ve said before, we shouldn’t be shifting our focus away from patient’s health in order to be people pleasers.  “Patient satisfaction” is one word away from “customer satisfaction” but patients aren’t customers, and most physicians don’t consider themselves customer service providers. As Dr Gregory Patrick points out in his opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,

Anyone working in customer service knows that customer satisfaction depends on saying ‘yes.’ Saying ‘no’ to a customer does not raise customer-satisfaction scores. An inconvenient truth in grading doctor-patient interactions along a provider-customer axis: The customer is not always right.

The inconvenient truth is that due to the information imbalance in medicine between patient and provider, the patient actually cannot always be right. At my institution, we’ve toyed with idea of doing a study looking at trauma patients who leave the hospital “against medical advice” and finding out what ultimately happens to them.  In other words, do patients actually know what is in their own best interest? Ultimately, the answer is no – human beings constantly do things that harm their own health, but not knowing what is in your own best interest isnt necessarily a bad thing.  After all, that’s why physicians and other health care providers have dedicated years of their lives to obtaining a medical education and honing their craft – because patients don’t and can’t always know what is wrong with them and what they need from the health care system.  I’m by no means advocating a return to paternalist medicine where the doctor is always right, but similarly we shouldn’t be saying that the patient is always right either, especially not for the sole purpose of making them happy.

The higher mortality rate that the UC Davis researchers discovered is particularly disturbing, although logic tells us that an increased utilization of health care resources is likely to lead to an increased number of patient safety events or medical errors.  The problem of errors and adverse events in the health care system has been well documented by the Institue of Medicine.  One could argue that these events are also likely to impact patient satisfaction ratings as well, with far dire outcomes. Instead of focusing our energy entirely on whether our patients are happy, perhaps we should be spending more time ensuring their safety.


About justgngr

the ramblings of a medical professional by day, judgmental ginger by night
This entry was posted in health policy, medicine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Should we be keeping patients happy?

  1. Hampton says:

    BS.! So after having colon cancer surgery by the Chief of Surgery at Jupiter Medical Ctr, One month in a top, rehab, superb after care, and six months of Chemo with the top Oncologist at Good Sam my mortality will be shortened because I am happy w my treatment and I am in remission..If you believe this you probably believe everything Dr Oz says on tv. Whoever wrote this article probably had nothing to do one afternoon so with grant time looming……There are always plenty of openings at Saks or Bloomies

    • justgngr says:

      The research isn’t look at individuals – it’s looking at an aggregate. The point is that ensuring patient satisfaction doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher quality of care. The opposite may be true.

      If a patient comes in demanding a prescription for antibiotics, when they aren’t warrented, the physician concerned with “patient satisfaction” scores will likely write the prescription – even though taking antibiotics for no reason isn’t without risks.

      Should providers be providing excellent care and making sure their patients are happy at the same time? Sure. But making sure patients are happy doesn’t always mean providing the best care.

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