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How to Design a Patient Satisfaction Survey

Wondering what your patients really think about your health system? The best way to know is to ask, with a patient satisfaction survey!

Surveying patient satisfaction is an important part of evaluating care quality and ensuring better patient outcomes. Recently, it’s also become a major component of the push for value-based care, thanks to ACA and CMS. And besides the links to important quality reporting measures, patient satisfaction surveys give you valuable data on how to improve your practice and your patient experience.

So how do you design a patient satisfaction survey that’s actually useful? It’s simple, as long as you follow these key steps.

Step 1: Identify what you want to know

When it comes to how to create a patient satisfaction survey, bring your team together and identify potential problem areas in your practice before you begin. Are patient wait times too long? Are patients getting enough time with the provider? Can patients access their health information and get through to the office when they have questions or requests? This is a great opportunity to collaborate with staff members and share insights on how the organization could improve.

The goal of this first step is to make sure your health care satisfaction survey questions are both relevant and solvable. Asking broadly about satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with us?”) doesn’t give you actionable information. Instead, try asking about specific elements of the patient experience, like “How satisfied are you with the length of time you spend waiting to see a provider?”

The results of every question, good or bad, should naturally provide a next step that addresses your patients’ concerns. You can redesign your workflow to shorten wait times or adopt and promote your patient portal if patients report wanting better access to their provider.

Next, decide if you’re going to poll patients on a single experience (called an episode-specific survey), or on their general experiences with your organization. Using an episode-specific survey will give you specific feedback on the office experience immediately after a visit while a general survey will give you broader patient impressions over time.

Which one you pick depends on the kinds of questions you’d like to ask and how you feel about patients basing their answer on one encounter in your office. Episode-specific surveys can skew heavily positive or negative depending on things that may be out of your control, like an emergency that results in longer wait times that are outside the norm. Patients taking a general survey are likely to consider your practice’s performance as a whole and be less likely to give extremely high or extremely low marks based on a single experience.

Step 2: Create your survey

Every organization is different and every survey is too! Here are a few general tips to keep in mind when you design your patient satisfaction survey:

  •  Focus questions on common areas related to patient satisfaction.

Kevin Sullivan, president of patient satisfaction consulting firm Sullivan/Luallin, told ACP Internist Weekly that the most common areas for surveys to cover include access to care, ease of communication and staff/physician interactions. The exact questions can vary, but covering these topics will give you a good foundation for your survey.

  •  Avoid binary questions.

It’s difficult to draw actionable data from a yes or no response (i.e. “Are you satisfied with our office staff?”) and it’s easier to ask leading questions. Instead, use an answer scale with four options (e.g. very satisfied/somewhat satisfied/neutral/somewhat dissatisfied/very dissatisfied). Also, consider avoiding a “neutral” option to get a more accurate sense of how your patients are feeling.

  •  Ask, “Would you recommend us to a friend or family member?”

“A patient’s willingness to recommend the practice to others is a concrete way to measure their satisfaction,” says medical group operations consultant Elizabeth Woodcock in The Profitable Practice. It’s easy for a patient to check a box marked “satisfied.” Asking them to consider trusting you with the health of a friend fosters a different way of thinking.

  • Include an open-ended, general “comments” section at the end.

    Giving patients a place to write off-the-cuff comments is a great way to reveal issues you may not be aware of, and get further explanation for why they answered the way they did.
  • Keep it short.

The famous architecture quote “less is more” applies to surveys too. For best results, keep your patient survey to seven questions or fewer. It shows that you value the time your patients spend responding and limits you to only using the best questions.

 If you’re having a hard time getting started, check out the American Academy of Family Physicians’ patient satisfaction survey template.

Step 3: Choose a platform to launch your survey.

Depending on your patient population, there are a couple methods for collecting patient satisfaction survey responses:

  • Online

There are several free and paid options for survey hosting available, such as SurveyMonkey. Some even offer built-in promotion tools and real-time results charts. Keep in mind that online surveys may be less ideal if your patients don’t have easy access to a computer with internet access.

  •  Phone

Since 96 percent of Americans have a telephone in their home, phone surveys are a great way to get patient feedback. You can conduct them in-house with a staff member or by hiring a research firm like Press Ganey to make the calls and run the data for you.

  • Snail Mail

Mail surveys may seem a little old-fashioned, but they’re estimated to be 50 – 150 % cheaper than telephone surveys. Make sure to include pre-stamped envelopes so it’s easy for patients to mail back their responses.

  • In Office

Asking patients to fill out a survey at the end of their visit is a great way to get immediate feedback. You can have staff members hand patients the survey form when they’re checking out or place the forms and a collection box in your waiting room.

In addition to choosing how to launch your survey, you’ll need to create a plan for promoting it to get a good response. Some online survey platforms let you upload a mailing list for easy distribution. If you’re providing a paper survey during office visits, you can build that step into your clinical workflow.

To maximize your results, make it as simple as possible for patients to return survey forms. You may even want to incentivize them by offering a raffle at the end of the survey, where each returned survey form gives you the chance to win a gift card or cash prize.

Step 4: Evaluate the results

If you’re using an online survey tool like SurveyMonkey, results will be available for download as an excel file. From there, it’s easy to make graphs using programs like PowerPoint or Keynote. If you used a mail-in, phone or in-office survey, set aside time to input the results into a spreadsheet manually.

Next, hold a meeting with your staff to discuss the results and brainstorm possible changes to address your patients concerns. If feedback deals with the behavior of specific staff members, ensure that it’s delivered privately and in a sensitive manner.

Before moving forward with changes, ensure that 10-20% of your patient population has responded. Otherwise, your results won’t be statistically significant and you risk acting on bad data.

Step 5: Make Changes

After you’ve taken some time to evaluate the results, it’s time to move forward and make changes. In consultation with your staff, create a list of the changes you’d like to make and a realistic timeline for making them.

Understand that change is never easy or comfortable. Be prepared to encounter staff pushback and consider what your response will be.

After changes have been in place for a few months, consider running another survey to ask patients if things have improved. If the data shows improvements, it’s time to celebrate!

Ready to design your patient satisfaction survey and find out the results? Your organization is on its way to happier patients and better outcomes.

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