I’ve said this a thousand times: trust is a fragile thing when it comes to the patient experience. I recently had some minor surgery that I’d been planning for some time. Because of my rigorous travel schedule, taking the time out for surgery is no small feat. So I had gone through all the pre-operative steps, including teaching, history, and physical, and was all set except for knowing the time of surgery. I was told that I would be contacted the day before my surgery and given the schedule. Of course, I had to have someone drive me to and from the hospital, so that meant that neither of us knew how much of our day would be required.
First of all, let me say that this scheduling approach is not patient-centered. Not giving the patient any information about her scheduled time for surgery until the night before is strictly provider centered. If it was patient-centered, I would have been told days in advance. Instead, I was told that someone would call, and, if I wasn’t available, they would leave a message. I was also given a folder of printed documents, including my pre-operative and post-operative instructions, reiterating that I would be getting a call. The instructions stated that if I had not gotten a call, I should call a specific number before 7:00 p.m.
I received no call and no message. At 6:30 p.m. the night before my surgery, I called the number listed. After being transferred, the call was disconnected. Trying the number again, the attendant instructed me to call another number. When I asked if she could please transfer me, she said, “If we cut you off last time, we’ll cut you off this time. Good luck.” Not helpful. My next call resulted in the phone ringing thirty times before it was disconnected. This back and forth went on for nearly a half hour when finally someone took my number and said someone would call back.
At that point, I was not only irritated, but I had lost trust in the organization. After all, if it couldn’t answer a simple question, or even answer the phone number I was told to call, how reliable could its staff be in cutting me open and doing the right procedure on the right body part?
After six calls, I had made up my mind that I would cancel the surgery if I didn’t get an answer within the hour. This experience made me wonder just how many patients would continue calling to try to get answers and how many would just give up and wait until the next day to hear from someone. That would be costly for the organization as operating room time is a precious commodity.
By 9:00 that night, my question was answered when the department manager returned my call. I learned from her that I had been scheduled as the first patient in the morning and should arrive at 6:00. She was apologetic and said no one seemed to know why I hadn’t been called, but she was looking into it. I explained to her that this situation wasn’t just frustrating and time consuming; it caused me to question the competency of the team to whom I would trust my life in just nine hours.
I was surprised when the nurse who admitted me at 6:00 the next morning said, “I heard about the problem last night. I’m so sorry that happened.” In a way, it was good that she addressed the issue up front, but I also didn’t want my caregivers feeling like they were walking on eggshells. Fortunately, my surgery went well and the staff was thorough and confident.
But it reminded me that a patient experience is only as strong as the weakest link. Everything about the experience must be safeguarded in order to earn patient trust.