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Technology

This Startup Has A Solid Plan To Make The Patient Experience Suck A Whole Lot Less

Imagine if a hospital functioned like a five-star restaurant or hotel.

[Photo: Flickr User: Tristan Bowersox]

Most of us shudder when we think about the experience of going to the hospital. Between the long wait times and the overwhelmed staff, patients are often left feeling neglected at their most vulnerable hour.

But according to Paul Roscoe, a long-time health industry executive, it doesn't have to be this way. Roscoe's venture-backed startup, Docent Health, specializes in working with health systems to improve the experience for patients. It may sound farfetched, but the goal is to bring hospitality to health care and draw on best practices from top restaurants and hotels.

"It's possible now as we are seeing a transformation in how health systems think about their patients," says Roscoe. "They aren't just a patient, but a consumer."

In recent years, patients have been armed with more tools than ever before to shop for health care based on quality and price. Consumer review sites like Yelp are investing ample resources in building data-sets to inform patients about the health care facilities they choose. Patients have more incentives to push for transparency in the face of higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

In response to this shift, hospitals are growing increasingly concerned about keeping their patients happy and loyal. And as Roscoe points out, delivering a decent experience increases the odds that a patient will come back. That might seem like a no brainer, but it hasn't traditionally been a top priority for many of the largest hospitals.

How Does It Work?

Docent Health uses a combination of online and offline methods to improve patient satisfaction. It officially launches Tuesday with backing from Bessemer Venture Partners and New Enterprise Associates, but the company has been quietly testing its service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York for months. About 5,000 patients were involved with the first pilot.

Once Docent's team receives word that a patient is coming into the hospital, one of its so-called "patient liaisons" will call the patient at home to prepare them for an upcoming procedure and ask if they need support. The patient liaisons might ask a practical question about transportation options and medication history. They might ask a more personal question, like whether the patient has a preferred nickname.

Once the patient arrives at the hospital, the liaison will typically be waiting for them. At that point, they'll start recording information in Docent's software system about the patient's experience thus far, and ensure they have everything they need. The liaison will maintain a relationship with the patient for as long as is required after they leave the hospital.

These liaisons carry a mobile or tablet device with them at all times to record information about the patient experience. They are assigned to about ten patients in total at any given time. The company retains them on a contract basis, and they work closely with the health systems' existing staff.

"If a health system isn't delighting its patients, I want to know about it," says Roscoe. Ultimately, he hopes to build a Salesforce.com of sorts for patient experience.

Playing Catch Up

Hospitals are already making efforts to better understand the patient experience. In 2007, Medicare began requiring hospitals to collect information about patient satisfaction and report it to the federal government. Health systems will deploy official patient surveys, often by mail, with mixed success.

Roscoe says this data isn't typically very encompassing of most people's health care experiences. Oftentimes, these surveys are sent out weeks after the procedure — and only a small percentage of patients respond.

"I could imagine this appealing to hospitals that want to go above and beyond when it comes to understanding patient satisfaction," says Regina Holliday, a patient rights advocate based in Grantsville, Maryland. Moreover, many hospitals face hefty fines if they fail to reduce their rates of hospital readmissions. Docent's patient liaisons could help with that by ensuring that patients take their medication once they leave the hospital so they don't end up back in the emergency room.

Docent's team envisions that the company will make money by selling its software-as-a-service to hospitals that are looking to upgrade their customer experience. Roscoe says that most of the health systems' executives that he interacts with see it as a top priority to improve their patient satisfaction rates. "It's still early days, but health systems are realizing that they have to care about loyalty and their brand like every other industry."