When I was on college, we filled out a survey at the end of each month.
The purpose was to improve the overall quality of the learning experience. We were presented with over 20 questions to rate our professor’s approach and how it influenced our learning capability.
Man, we hated it. Everybody had a lot to say, but not in this highly irritating way.
We dreamed about the opportunity to explain our main problems and things that would make us feel better. Instead, we were forced to spend our time and energy on grading every single aspect of our classes.
It was the ultimate definition of boring – give five points to something you really care about, and three points to something you don’t really give a fuck about.
After 10 minutes of grading, your answers form the final results and looking at those results makes you feel small.
You see just tiny little numbers which will probably become part of some chart in the future; certainly not something that emphasizes the importance of your voice.
I had this same, distant feeling after completing my first patient outcome questionnaire.
This questionnaire come as a result of the good intentions but these good intentions aren’t packed in shape of normal human interactions.
It’s like a roller coaster of emotions. First you’re thrilled about the fact that someone else cares about your health and then you open the file and see 42 close-ended questions.
I won’t lie, It looks pretty disappointing from the patient perspective.
In my opinion, this is just another wasted opportunity to show you’re an awesome doctor.
The majority of doctors don’t track outcomes and if you decide to do so you’re already on the right path, but instead of taking this “scientific” approach I suggest a more human-centric approach.
Here’s “crazy” idea.
The Single Most Important Question
Think about a normal conversation with your patients.
When asking your patients about their conditions, do you ask 42 questions at once?
Of course not; you ask one open-ended question and eventually a few additional ones if the patient’s story reveals something intriguing.
Why not mimic this approach when you ask your patients about the outcome?
It’s a more elegant way and you already have a powerful question that fits in perfectly.
What if instead of sending long questionnaires every three months, you simply ask your patient, “How are you?”
You can add few words and encourage them to speak freely, but the principles stay the same. The doctor sends a simple personal message to the patients.
The Benefits of Such an Approach
Maybe you won’t get a ton of self-reported metrics, but this approach has other, more direct benefits – benefits that could make positive difference in the relationship with your patients.
Here they are:
First, and foremost is bonding with patients on a deeper, more emotional level.
Asking “how are you?” is already powerful. Some doctors start a doctor’s visit with this question, while others say this every time they’re visiting inpatients.
However, asking this when a patient doesn’t expect it is five times more powerful.
A few months after surgery, at best, a patient can expect a cold survey provided by the hospital administration. Instead of the cold survey, they get a kind and careful message from their doctor.
Isn’t this more personal?
This message breaks down boundaries that industrial medicine puts between us.
You don’t ask the patient for a favor, you don’t collect governmental triple aim metrics or data for your clinical trial. Instead, you show that you care about the person and they will appreciate it.
2.Chance to React
A more human-centric approach isn’t just better option when treatment goes by plan, but also brings prevalence when the patient isn’t happy with the treatment’s results.
Obviously, patients are sensitive when things didn’t go as they expected. If you ask for a favor and treat them “like a number” in this highly sensitive state they will probably ignore your request.
On contrary, if you show personal interest in the patient’s health, there is a much greater possibility that you will receive honest feedback.
Not just feedback… Depending on the timing, and your previous relationship with the patient, you may even get a chance to react and influence the outcome.
Since you ask your patient open-ended question you will probably get a better answer with a focus on the most important aspects.
As a patient, I found it very hard to answer this 42-question questionnaire sent to me.
I perfectly knew how to describe my unique pain, what other symptoms make me feel worried, and how this affected the activities that are most important in my life. However, I couldn’t convey this just by picking “numbers” on the scale.
For example, I feel pain in my foot every time I have a fever, or if the weather changes. In this situation, I feel very strong pain in intervals, like someone stabbing me with knife in my foot every 20-30 seconds.
I manage to reduce the pain with painkillers and it happens rarely, so it isn’t something that represents a serious obstacle in my life.
How could I explain this trough this predefined set of questions and answers?
Literally, the questionnaire forced me to choose something and fabricate the truth; none of these answers represent my situation. This feeling of indifference followed me through the whole questionnaire
On contrary, if I had an open-ended questions, I would have the opportunity to deeply explain three things that are critical in describing my current health situation.
My doctor would get truthful answers and I would feel better because I described my health appropriately.
4.Flexible like a Balerine
The final benefit that make this approach even more appealing is an absence of complexity.
You can use it to track outcomes in complex cases like mine, but it’s also suitable for less complex cases.
“How are you?” is a universal question and you can slightly adjust it for every occasion.
It doesn’t need to be published in the latest piece of your medical journal. You don’t need survey tools or statistical analysis. You need just an email (patient portal) and a basic calendar.
Simply add a reminder, and send a message whenever you think it’s necessary. In one, two, or 12 months, pick what is suitable for each case.
When the patient’s response arrives, you will have everything in one place, inside of “the tool” you already use to communicate with patients. Ready to read, think about and answer if it’s necessary.
Move Outcome Tracking to Another Level
You put your heart and soul in every case and you deserve an opportunity to see what really happens with your patients.
But to understand the patient’s side you need to give them what they deserve – a chance to talk freely about their conditions in the way they experience it.
If you send long cold questionnaires you might get some numbers back. However you won’t unlock the real potential of patient-reported outcomes.
Tracking outcomes shouldn’t end with a chart, it should empower doctors with the opportunity to feel, learn and influence.
The only way to reach these three things is if you treat the patient like a person.
I just gave you an idea of how to do so, and now it’s up to you.