Ensuring a positive patient experience should be a top priority throughout the entire treatment journey, as higher patient satisfaction can drive improved health outcomes, treatment adherence, and quality of life.
Although cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, unprecedented progress in treatment has been made in recent years.1 Precision oncology, artificial intelligence, breakthroughs in drug therapy, new digital health applications, and advanced detection strategies have revolutionized the field and significantly improved prognosis. There is, however, another factor that plays a major role in driving optimal outcomes: the patient experience.
Patients with cancer face a great amount of mental and physical distress, which itself has been linked to increased health care usage, decreased survival, and suboptimal quality of life.2 Historically, overtaxed physicians may not have been adequately equipped to meet the vast needs and concerns of these patients,3 which makes the patient experience even more important. Ensuring a positive patient experience should be a top priority throughout the entire treatment journey, as higher patient satisfaction can drive improved health outcomes, treatment adherence, and quality of life.4 However, creating a superb patient experience does not just happen. It takes careful planning and execution. There are numerous things providers can do to build the optimal patient experience that meets patient needs and cultivate the patient-provider bond and increase patient retention. A closer look at some of these activities may offer insight into how practices can approach this important task.
The patient experience is not limited to just interactions with the direct care team, but goes well beyond that to include all encounters with the practice staff—from the receptionist, to the scheduler, to the pharmacy team, to billing, and all other key ancillary staff members.5 Each of these touchpoints and interactions play a role in building and sustaining a good relationship with the patient that can provide much needed support during treatment. To begin laying the foundation for a satisfactory patient experience and patient-provider relationship, practices should consider the following:
Trust is the cornerstone of every good relationship, and developing it begins with effective communication. Patients genuinely hope to have a close, collaborative relationship with their providers that will enable them to openly discuss their condition and concerns. Unfortunately, when it comes to the cancer journey, many of them report a one-sided relationship.4
Practices should strive to establish a space that makes patients feel they are safe within the walls of the practice and in a supportive environment that allows them to be truthful and vulnerable. Because delivering comprehensive cancer care goes well beyond treating the patient’s disease, providers must take a more personal interest in what is happening in their patients’ lives, helping them manage and navigate through the complexities of this condition and the effect it has on their day-to-day experiences, not only physically but also emotionally.
This may mean addressing patient needs outside of the provider’s primary area of responsibility, and successful providers are intentional with demonstrating compassion, listening to patients’ concerns, being respectful of their anxieties and fears, and doing whatever they can to assist the patient. This high level of support will go a long way in building trust and respect and in making the patient feel the care team is working in their best interest, an essential element in establishing a strong, positive patient experience.
Being transparent is important in delivering a good patient experience, as it helps patients stay informed throughout their treatment journey and have a better understanding of the various stages of their care plan. Thorough explanations should be delivered to patients to explain the rationale for a particular treatment recommendation to control or stabilize the disease, as well as the possibility of undesirable adverse effects (AEs) that come along with it. Providers need to be comprehensive in terms of teaching patients what the treatment involves and what they should expect when they receive therapy, providing patients with all the necessary educational materials so they thoroughly understand what is coming.
Transparency also requires the care team to be candid, providing patients with truthful and accurate assessments of their condition. Patients appreciate and value frank and honest discussions of their situation, as this knowledge enables them to better prepare themselves and their loved ones for the future or meet specific goals they wish to achieve in a certain timeframe
Maintaining simplicity is an important aspect of building the optimal patient experience that is often overlooked. Locating and understanding educational material can be very difficult for a patient. This is especially true for patients during the early stages of their disease, as adjusting to the diagnosis can be distressing and overwhelming. Curating resources and leveraging digital health platforms that are easily understandable for patients and that meet them where they are can be very helpful in encouraging and supporting meaningful engagement.5
A recent report by Accenture found that half of the respondents with cancer wanted more involvement in their treatment plan and decision-making process.6 By providing patients with autonomy and an opportunity to connect through open and candid conversations, patients will gain a voice in their treatment plan, collaborating with their care team and ultimately fostering a strong patient-provider relationship.
There are many opportunities for patients to be involved in deciding the care they receive. Today, clinicians have decision-support tools that identify several varying treatment options with similar efficacies that may have different AE profiles. Providers can seek patient involvement in deciding which treatment to select, explaining the various treatments to the patient and the possible AEs of each that can affect quality of life. The provider and the patient can then make a collaborative decision on which treatment path is clinically appropriate that also meets the patient’s lifestyle goals.
Creating an optimal patient experience requires patient involvement in the decision-making process during the entire cancer journey, including end-of-life care. Providing patients with the opportunity to determine and document the type of care they want during the final stages of their disease can ensure their end-of-life care goals and wishes are met. Advance care planning has become so critical that it is included as a quality metric in many value-based care models to make sure patients have a role in these important end-oflife decisions.
To ensure patients have the best experience possible, providers must acknowledge that caring for the patient goes well beyond treatment plans and drug therapy, requiring a much more comprehensive, holistic approach. Cancer treatment is shifting away from being disease-focused to a more patient-centered method.7 This approach recognizes patients not only face physical challenges, but oftentimes emotional, social, spiritual, and financial issues as well. As such, more patients with cancer desire and seek out additional support and guidance. For instance, data shows 7 out of 10 patients believe having some sort of peer support would be valuable to them, so there is a need for more supportive care programs to address these issues.6
In response to the additional needs of the patient, care plans now go well beyond simply managing the patient’s disease, focusing more broadly on managing and supporting the whole person. New care models, such as the integrative oncology model, have been developed to better address and treat the patient’s other needs through various mind-body practices, natural products, and lifestyle modifications.7 The model leverages evidence-based complementary therapies, in adjunct with conventional treatments. Some of these therapies include activities such as: support groups, mentorship, massage, yoga, music therapy, and many others that patients view as key components of their cancer experience. As 9 out of 10 patients want emotional support recommendations from their provider,5 addressing this need and other integrative care requests can help create a good patient experience and provide an excellent opportunity to enhance the patient-provider relationship through trust and collaboration.
As we live in an ever-growing digital world, digital health has come to the forefront of health care and goes hand-in-hand with the patient experience. The FDA’s definition of digital health covers a broad area of activity, including telehealth and telemedicine, mobile health, health information technology, wearable devices, and personalized medicine.8
As digital health has empowered patients and made access to health information more readily available, it has also added some complexity and challenges to creating a positive patient experience. A diagnosis of cancer is a lifechanging event for patients and their families. Given the tremendous effect, there is often strong patient engagement and a desire to seek out knowledge to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their condition.
However, with the plethora of medical information available online, patients often struggle to locate personalized, understandable, and reliable information they can trust. One out of every 3 patients in a recent survey reported being overwhelmed by the number of information sources when trying to learn more about their condition and symptoms.6 As a result, the patient’s care team is frequently sought out to help navigate these challenges to obtain clarity, providing yet another opportunity to enhance the patient-provider relationship.
Despite these difficulties, digital health and advanced technologies can still play a vital role in building a positive patient experience. A robust interactive online presence is essential for practices today, as patients have gotten used to experiencing a certain level of technical sophistication from the companies they interact with on a day-to-day basis.
There are a few fundamentals practices should follow when building their digital presence that will help ensure a good digital experience for patients.5 For instance, practices should offer digital communication formats that are simple to use so patients at all skill levels can easily access them. This is especially important for older patients who might not be tech savvy. Educational needs may change as patients move through treatment and practices should provide easy access to a wide range of material to help them through various stages of their cancer journey. More personalized educational material can also be offered to patients with specific needs. Practices can also help patients by referring them to other online resources that are geared for their disease or therapies.
Delivering the best possible patient experience brings a multitude of benefits to patients and providers, as well as the practice. Not only does it help patients achieve better outcomes, but it also strengthens the patient-provider relationship, fostering trust, loyalty and retention. In addition to producing the financial gains that come along with patient retention, positive patient experiences have also been associated with progressively shaping organizational culture through increased employee satisfaction.9
Building the optimal patient experience can be challenging, but in today’s competitive world, it is essential for practices to make this activity a top priority. Often, patients have a multitude of choices when it comes to who will provide their care. Even if they are a current patient, it is relatively easy for them to slip away to another provider, and difficult, if not impossible, to win them back. As such, creating an optimal patient experience should be a core tenant of the practice, receiving the necessary investment of time, effort, and financial resources required to advance patient experiences.