While I don't wade into the political spectrum often in these discussions, in light of the news of the day, I am hard pressed not to at least share a reflection on what is taking place in Washington, D.C., its impact on the U.S. Healthcare system, and the broader economic implications it is presumed to have. I do not intend to advocate for one position or another here, but rather share a core reflection on the lesson I see for patient experience professionals in the current state of affairs.
For those of us in healthcare (and in reality for all of those that are not), this week signifies a historic time with some of the first steps underway in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare. Regardless of the actions (or inactions) on Capitol Hill, and whether you are in support of or against it, the healthcare law will move forward for now. I do not intend to break down the law and examine its detailed impact on the patient experience here. Rather, I hope to share a simple but significant realization about the entire U.S. Healthcare system revealed in this debate.
Recent polls conducted separately by both Fox News and CNBC found that when asked, Americans often distinguish between the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Obamacare. Much of this distinction is driven from the very mouths of congressional and other political leaders. In fact in exploring people's opinions on the programs under these two naming conventions there was a variance in the value, interest and support for each of these programs. The challenge (or perhaps surprise) in this discovery is that in fact these two programs are exactly the same thing - the ACA is Obamacare and vice versa.
The reality is in healthcare we have many words that raise this same challenge in our delivery system, driven by providers, supported by payors and serving patients and families. The example above, of divergent opinions on, in essence, the same idea, driven by language, expert opinion or pure rhetoric, is one of the best I have seen reinforcing with clear data the power of language and more importantly perception.
The concept of perception - the way you think about or understand someone or something – is a central part of the patient experience itself. Defining patient experience as the sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient (and family) perceptions across the continuum of care makes explicit that perception is both the result of experience and also the lens through which people make choices now and into the future around their care.
For the reported confusion created in the language around two names for the same healthcare law – ACA or Obamacare – there are limitless levels of confusion created in the language of our healthcare system itself, from diagnosis to medications, acronyms to systemic issues. In the simplest of terms we all too often and in many cases unintentionally create confusions for the healthcare community, our patients and their families in the terminology and language we choose to use. I recently sat on a panel at DePaul University on the future of healthcare in the U.S. and this very issue emerged – that in creating true accessibility we have to not only have the proper processes and checklists in place, but also the right, and perhaps more importantly, the clearest language possible.
I am not suggesting the healthcare system is facing the same levels of dysfunction as the U.S. Congress, but I do believe there is a great opportunity for clarity in making the healthcare experience easier and better for all receiving care. Finding language that works for patients and families, as well as for those working in the system, will only serve to better engage and inform patients and families and support the invaluable nature of their role as partners in the healthcare process.
This could perhaps be one of the first and most important steps in driving patient experience success. There is power in language, in its application and perception…the US congress taught us that again this week in a way I don't think we cared to learn. But in this chaos I see a silver lining, an important lesson for all of us either entrusted with and/or committed to the best in patient experience. Manage perceptions with clarity and honesty in each and every healthcare encounter. It may not change the system overnight, but it will have a positive and powerful ripple effect that will be very hard to diminish.
Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D.
The Beryl Institute