Being a GP for a number of years, I’ve really come to learn the importance of getting feedback from patients. I remember one of our patients who had been visiting our practice for a long time making this really clear when she started to get older. Let’s call her Joan for privacy sake.
As Joan’s mobility declined each of her trips into our clinic seemed more difficult than the last. Over time she was no longer able to drive and relied on taxi vouchers to get to and from the clinic. If she needed to see a specialist, it was harder still, and she often wasn’t sure where to go or how to get there.
As her vision started to go she started to find it difficult to read the signage and pamphlets in the waiting room. For us, we had no idea what she was going through. She turned up to her appointments as always and we did the best we could to help her with her ongoing health issues. It wasn’t until the reception team asked her to fill in a survey of patient satisfaction that she wrote candidly about her difficulties. She explained that she was having difficulty reading and getting to and from her specialist appointments.
In response, we increased the amount of signage in the waiting room and provided larger print handouts of our pamphlets and flyers. We also started getting visiting specialists in a couple days per week so her, and others like her, could get access to healthcare specialists more easily. These were small changes, but we could see how much of an impact they had on not just Joan but many of our aged patients.
Why understanding the patient experience works
The biggest lesson for us was that by understanding Joan’s experiences we were able to provide her, and others struggling with similar things, with better healthcare. By giving her a place to share her thoughts privately we were able to learn not just what was helpful to her, but also what made her visits easier or more difficult. Plus it was a place where she could share her own ideas on how to improve the patient experience.
Many studies have shown that patient feedback is linked to higher patient satisfaction, better treatment outcomes and improved patient safety. In our practice alone, feedback from patients like Joan has led to not just the provision of larger printed brochures and more visits from specialists, but also the creation of new health content materials, such as dietary and exercise recommendations for osteoporosis.
“We even organised a mobile bone scanning service to operate from the practice car park by listening to feedback from patients.”
We’ve seen some really big changes from simply listening to what patients want. And beyond just giving patients a better experience, we’ve found that giving patients the chance to give feedback has made them more likely to return to our practice and more likely to follow through with their doctor’s advice.
But how exactly do you go about collecting feedback? There are many ways depending on what works best for your practice. For instance, there are questionnaires, focus groups (where select patients talk about their experiences in a group setting) and even interviews. If in doubt, the RACGP’s patient feedback guide provides detailed guidance on the various methods of gathering patient feedback.
Keep in mind that the RACGP has some guidelines in place that you need to know before collecting feedback. Questionnaires, for example, can only be used if the questions are approved by the RACGP. This means either using a questionnaire that the RACGP has created themselves, or using a questionnaire provided by a commercial provider, or in-house developer, that is approved by the RACGP.
This said, there is considerable scope for flexibility in how information can be gathered. For instance, questionnaires can be collected via paper forms, over the phone, via text message or even through mobile apps.
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages for the different modalities. For instance, apps or text message questionnaires can often exclude certain demographics, such as some elderly patients who have opted out of SMS or who are resistant to using apps.
Over the phone questionnaires, on the other hand, appeal to some patients but can be time consuming and increase practice costs. Similarly, focus groups can prove costly and time consuming. Still, there is no doubt that enormous value comes from taking a deeper dive on specific ideas and issues.
It’s worth noting that patients should always have a choice over whether they want to provide feedback or not and anything they say must remain confidential and not be used without their permission. Privacy and confidentiality are critical. Information gathered must conform with The Privacy Act 1988 and data must be de-identified and stored securely, whether physically in locked filing cabinets or in password-protected computer files.
Dr. Sarah Howells
Sarah is a GP and medical writer with a special interest in public health and paediatrics. She has written extensively on health and medicine with articles published in Australian Journal of Emergency Management and Australian Family Physician.