From the Reading Room: Improving patient satisfaction one focus group at a time

Nurse Leader Insider, May 24, 2018

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For one Owensboro, KY, hospital, the ability to heal patients doesn't just come from qualified staff members or advanced procedures. It comes from the patients themselves.

Patient focus groups have been a great source of knowledge and information for the Owensboro Medical Health System, which uses the groups to gather ideas for new programs and facilities at the 447-bed hospital. By meeting and exchanging ideas, patients bring important perspectives to light.

"Some of the things they ask for are so simple, and so easy for us to overlook because we can get desensitized to what really makes their lives easier," says Bonnie Roberts, RN, MSM, OCN, director of cancer services. "One patient had a really hard time when the nurse came to her bedside with all of the needles, drugs, and medical equipment. One of the things we did after that was cover up equipment when it isn't in use."

At Owensboro, the patient satisfaction survey is a proven way to determine the public perception of a hospital, but health systems across the country are augmenting surveys with a more direct, representative method of gathering public input. By assembling focus groups that include a diverse range of community members, hospitals are able to:

  • Boost facility recognition
  • Improve patient satisfaction
  • Create a more comforting environment

Input boosts satisfaction

For Barbara Taylor, manager of marketing and public relations at Owensboro, the input of focus groups is invaluable. During construction of the system's cancer center, which opened in 2005, patients and their families had their say, with evident results. "We used patient groups to help us with some of the design elements. When you walk into it, it feels like you're walking into someone's home instead of a clinic," Taylor says.

Roberts says addressing the needs of patients is crucial to a smooth operation.

For example, when discussing the layout and décor of the new cancer center, focus group members repeatedly suggested a nature theme. "Whenever they needed rest and peace of mind, they found that they would seek refuge in nature," explains Roberts. At the cancer center, "they wanted to be as near to the outdoors as they possibly could."

Prior to construction, cancer services were located in many different parts of the hospital, making navigation difficult for patients. "One of the reasons for building the cancer center was to bring all of the services that a patient would need into one facility, even including the physician offices," Taylor says.

The results of the move soon became clear. Patient satisfaction surveys showed those using the cancer center were overwhelmingly pleased with the experience, Taylor says. "We do a phone survey of patient satisfaction," says Taylor. "The cancer center scores were consistently above 75%."

For more information and background on patient satisfaction surveys you can implement at your facility, click here.

Expanding the focus

Due to the cancer center's success, Owensboro plans to use focus groups again to gain community input when it designs a new hospital facility, scheduled to open in 2012.

"Our community here in Owensboro has been very eager for the new facility, and we're going to build a mock patient room for the staff and public to offer suggestions," says Taylor. "We feel that the facility will only get better by involving all the different users."

Roberts says she believes more and more hospitals will realize the value of consumer focus groups, and there will be an increase in their use over the next several years. "When you listen to a patient's point of view, you realize how hard it can be for them, and how you have the ability to simplify things and make life easier for the patient, as well as your staff," she says. "I think focus groups are an important step for healthcare. I would advise people to take the time to do focus groups. It's well worth the time for healthcare facilities to listen to patients."

Considering the obstacles

Although the use of focus groups is on the rise, obstacles remain. Focus groups are not as prevalent as they could be due to key obstacles, such as:

  • Expenses
  • Lack of commitment from the facility
  • Difficulties recruiting group members
  • No one to moderate and champion the effort

Despite the perceived high costs, a focus group on hospital grounds is estimated to be less than the cost of an annual community survey, which entails a large volume of phone calls or mailings. Furthermore, holding a focus group allows patients past, present, and future to do something a survey does not: talk directly with a concerned human being.

Roberts said just having the opportunity to be heard is good for patients. "Whether a patient is happy or does well depends on being content and feeling that the people taking care of them are doing a good job," she says.

Surveys, and the information they bring, are a valuable part of determining patient satisfaction, Taylor says, but information from focus groups can help you create a positive experience for patients before they come to the hospital.

"Patient satisfaction surveys focus more on how the patient was treated when they were here, and not as much on what they want to see," Taylor says. "[Surveying] is a little different than asking them to review a brochure, or seeing what they want when we redo the waiting room." These concerns, among others, are issues that Owensboro will ask focus groups to examine in the coming months.

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