Hospitalists address patient experience during the pandemic


A sacred encounter

For Sarah Richards, MD, a hospitalist with Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, what happens in the hospital room between the hospitalist and the patient is a sacred encounter. “It’s about relationship and trust,” she said, noting that it’s hard to capture all of that in survey data. It might be better expressed in words: “ ‘How are things going for you?’ To me, that’s the real patient experience. When I talk with physicians about patient experience, I start with why this matters. We know, for example, that when patients trust us, they are more likely to engage with their care and adhere to the treatment plan.”

Sarah Richards, MD, a hospitalist with Nebraska Medicine in Omaha

Dr. Sarah Richards

Dr. Richards said standard hospital quality surveys can be a blunt tool. The HCAHPS survey, conducted around a week after the hospitalization, has a low response rate, and returns are not representative of the demographic served in the hospital. “The inpatient data are not always helpful, but this is what we have to work with. One choice hospitals have is for the leadership to choose not to use the data for individual bonuses, recognition, or discipline, since the questions ask patients about the care they received collectively from all of their doctors,” she said.

But as hospitalists have worked longer shifts under more stress while wearing PPE – which makes it harder to communicate with their patients – there is a dynamic that has emerged, which deserves more study. “I think doctors gave it their all in the pandemic. I’m a hospitalist, and people told me I’m a hero. But did that change my impact at work (on patient experience)?” she said.

Dr. Richards sits on SHM’s Patient Experience Special Interest Group (SIG), which was tasked with providing tools to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic. These include a fact sheet, “Communication Tips for 5 Common Conundrums in the COVID-19 Pandemic”, and a downloadable pocket card called “The 5 Rs of Cultural Humility.”

Also on the SIG is Mark Rudolph, MD, SFHM, Sound Physicians’ chief experience officer, whose job title reflects a growing, systematic attention to patient experience in U.S. hospitals. “Most clinicians are familiar with the surveys and the results of those surveys,” he told The Hospitalist. “People in our field can get frustrated with the surveys, and have a lot to say about the quality of the scores themselves – what is actually being measured. Is the patient upset because the coffee was cold, or due to a bad clinical experience? Is it about the care they received from the hospitalist, or the physical setting of the hospital?”

Doing the right thing

To be a patient hospitalized with an acute illness is a form of suffering, Dr. Rudolph said. “We know patient experience in the hospital since March of 2020 has been frightening and horrible. These people are as sick as can be. Everything about the experience is horrible. Every effort you can make to reduce that suffering is important. If you are a patient in the hospital and don’t know what’s happening to you, that’s terrifying.”

Mark Rudolph, MD, Sound Physicians’ chief experience officer, Tacoma, Wash.

Dr. Mark Rudolph

He encourages hospitalists to look beyond the scores or the idea that they are just trying to improve their scores. “Look instead at the actual content of the questions around communication with doctors. The competencies addressed in the survey questions – listening and explaining things clearly, for example – are effective guides for patient experience improvement efforts. You can be confident you’re doing the right thing for the patient by focusing on these skills, even if you don’t see immediate changes in survey scores.”

Hospitals that did not allow visitors had worse clinical outcomes and worse patient experience ratings, and recent research confirms that when family visitors are not allowed, outcomes are worse in areas such as patient ratings of medical staff responsiveness, fall rates, and sepsis rates.1 “None of that should be surprising. Not having family present just ups the ante. Any hospital patients could benefit from an advocate sitting next to them, helping them to the bathroom, and keeping them from falling out of bed,” Dr. Rudolph said.

“In the past year, we have placed a premium on communicating with these patients with kindness and compassion, to help them understand what’s happening to them,” he said. Out of necessity, hospitals have had to rejigger their processes, which has led to more efficient and better care, although the jury is still out on whether that will persist post pandemic.

Communicating with compassion

Swati Mehta, MD, a hospitalist at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, Calif., and director of quality performance and patient experience at Vituity, a physician-owned and -led multispecialty partnership, said COVID-19 was a wake-up call for hospitalists. There have been successful models for enhancing hospitalized patients’ experience, but it took the challenges of COVID-19 for many hospitalists to adopt them.

Dr. Swati Mehta, a hospitalist at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, Calif., and director of quality performance and patient experience at Vituity, a multispecialty partnership in Emeryville, Calif.

Dr. Swati Mehta

“Early in 2020, our data analysis showed emerging positive trends, reflecting our patients’ appreciation for what doctors were doing in the crisis and awareness of the challenges they faced. But after that uptick, global measures and national data showed drops for health care organizations and providers. Patients’ expectations were not being met. We needed to respond and meet patients where they were at. We needed to do things differently,” she said.

Keeping patients well informed and treating them with respect are paramount – and more important than ever – as reflected in Dr. Mehta’s “6H” model to promote a human connection between doctors and patients.2 As chair of SHM’s Patient Experience SIG, she led the creation of COVID-19–specific communication tips for hospitalists based on the 6H model. “I’m very committed to treating patients with compassion,” she said.

For Vituity, those approaches included making greater use of the hospital at home model for patients who reported to the emergency department but met certain criteria for discharge. They would be sent home with daily nursing visits and 24-hour virtual access to hospitalists. Vituity hospitalists also worked more closely with emergency departments to provide emergency psychiatric interventions for anxious patients, and with primary care physicians. Patient care navigators helped to enhance transitions of care. In addition, their hospitalist team added personalized pictures over their gowns so patients could see the hospitalists’ faces despite PPE.

Another Vituity innovation was virtual rounding, with iPads in the patient’s room and the physician in another room. “I did telerounds at our Redwood City hospital with patients with COVID who were very lonely, anxious, and afraid because they couldn’t have family visitors,” Dr. Mehta said. Telerounds offered greater protection and safety for both providers and patients, reduced the need for PPE, and improved collaboration with the nursing team, primary care providers, and families.

A recent perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the Zoom family conference may offer distinct advantages over in-person family conferences.3 It allows for greater participation by primary care clinicians who knew the patient before the current hospitalization and thus might have important contributions to discharge plans.

The pandemic stimulated many hospitals to take a closer look at all areas of their service delivery, Dr. Rudolph concluded. “We’ve made big changes with a lot of fearlessness in a short amount of time, which is not typical for hospitals. We showed that the pace of innovation can be faster if we lower the threshold of risk.”


1. Silvera GA et al. The influence of COVID-19 visitation restrictions on patient experience and safety outcomes: A critical role for subjective advocates. Patient Experience Journal. 8(1) doi: 10.35680/2372-0247.1596.

2. Mehta S. How to truly connect with your patients: Introducing the ‘6H model.’ The Hospitalist. 2020 Aug 14.

3. Lee TH. Zoom family meeting. N Engl J Med. 2021 Apr 29;384(17):1586-7.


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