What happens when you give children everything they ask for? They get spoiled, of course. Any parent can tell you that.
The problem is that you’re trying to raise children to (eventually) be responsible adults. Part of this is teaching them that you can’t always win, you should always share, and you can’t always get what you want.
Most kids don’t like it. (I know I didn’t.) They only see that the candy or toy they want is being refused and don’t grasp the long-term plan of growing up to be a decent person. Across a thousand human cultures, any parent would agree.
But the same principle doesn’t seem to apply in modern health care. What would you think is more important in a hospital: competent staff or having a beverage offered to you after being checked into the emergency department?
Sadly, things like the latter seem to be winning because of the recent emphasis on patient satisfaction scores . In today’s world, 30% of a hospital’s Medicare reimbursement is based on these scores. That’s a lot of money.
Unfortunately, quality of care doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning between doctors and patients. The former will say it means you left the hospital with a good outcome. The latter will agree but also will throw in things like whether they got enough pain meds or their call light answered fast enough. If you’re having chest pain or severe dyspnea, getting that call light answered quickly is pretty important. But if all you want is a soda or for someone to hand you the TV remote … not so much.
The problem is that the patient satisfaction surveys (and yes, speed of call-light response is on there) don’t take that key point into account. What might make some patients happy isn’t necessarily in their best interest. The post-CABG patient who wants a double cheeseburger won’t be thrilled if he gets a salad instead. Another patient in for detox won’t be pleased if she doesn’t get Dilaudid on demand. A third will be angry that he’s not allowed to smoke. Those refusals are an integral part of their successful treatment and recovery plan, but they may not see it that way. And they’ll be sure to mark it on the survey.
As a result, the hospital gets penalized in spite of the fact that they’re doing their best to provide quality care. And the business-minded CEOs, who generally have no medical background, only care about this part of it.
Measuring what counts is important. But the idea that hospital care should be held to the same standards as Burger King and Walmart is fundamentally flawed. The things that are done in hospitals – cut people open, draw blood, biopsy bone marrow, put in endotracheal and feeding tubes – aren’t intended as recreational experiences. We try to make them as painless as possible, but in health care “do no harm” often means doing some harm in order to prevent a catastrophe.
The side effects of chemotherapy are (hopefully) offset by the successful treatment of cancer. But that doesn’t mean hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other toxic symptoms are part of “customer satisfaction.” One study even found that the most satisfied patients had the highest mortality.
We owe patients the very best care we can give them, but they also need to understand that “best care” doesn’t always mean what they want in the short term. We’re focused on a goal that’s beyond the immediate horizon.
Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.