Clinical General Healthcare Costs Opinion Patient-Centered Care Reflection

Excellent, good, or fair? How accurately can patient satisfaction surveys measure quality of care?

Last week I had my semiannual dentist appointment. Right after I stepped out the door, I received an email: Dental Office – Patient Satisfaction Survey. Hi, thank you for visiting the dental office. Please take a minute to complete the survey…. Was it a déjà vu? Didn’t I just fill this out recently? Oh wait no. That was for the hygienist? Or was it for that new periodontist? Maybe it was my other specialists?

So besides rating my favorite restaurants and shops on Yelp and Google, now my clinics and insurance companies also want to know how I would rate my doctors– how splendid!

To my surprise, when I clicked the link, the questions were trickier than I expected. According to the email title, it seemed like the survey was about my dentist, but 75% of the questions were about the clinic itself: Waiting time in reception area, appointment phone call answering friendliness, waiting room neatness, office decoration….(Wait…my dentist is responsible for decoration? Great, let’s talk about changing the interior lighting and repainting the wall at the next appointment). As I was filling out the questionnaires, my head started to spin with my own questions: It was a normal checkup appointment, will “fair” be good enough? But I remembered I had given the hygienist an “excellent,” and honestly I couldn’t tell which one was better…oh boy! How are they going to use my answers? Who will be reading my survey responses? Who will be affected by my answers?

To me, it’s difficult to judge the doctors’ performance fairly. I can measure a finance manager by his portfolio performance, a designer by how many designs have been ordered, and a lawyer by how many lawsuits she has won. But judging a doctor is more like judging a piece of artwork: there’s a lot of subjectivity. How do I know Dr. ABC is better than Dr. XYZ? By my test result? Or by the number of medications they prescribe? Like with my dental visit, I couldn’t really tell the difference between that cleaning from the previous ones. Interestingly, some physician groups use patient satisfaction surveys to allocate bonuses [1]. That would make the weight of responsibility seem heavier; I would hate to find out that my dentist lost his Christmas bonus because of my thoughtless answers.

Needless to say, it’s difficult for management to evaluate every department and employee in a large organization. I truly hope that upper management does not blindly rely on this “big data” to determine a doctor’s career path. I would very much like my doctor to focus on my health, instead of for him or her to be driven by monetary incentives and to act as a salesperson. If the survey data is used for allocating the budget, perhaps the survey needs to be transparent about how the clinic is going to use the result: “This survey is for quality training purposes only” or “this survey is for determining the best doctor of the month and who gets the nearest parking spot.” I suspect that knowing the purpose of the survey helps the respondent think twice before jotting down comments or complaints. It might motivate patients to actually finish the survey (I would very much like to meet the saintly soul who is able to finish 30 ambiguous questions without losing their temper). Also, I would like to suggest that since we are giving patients such power, perhaps we can give some power to the physicians too and allow them to rate their patients (like how Airbnb and Uber lets hosts/drivers grade their guests/riders).

Surveys and ratings can be important sources of information. If I need to find a new doctor or specialist, the first thing I do is go on Yelp and sort the list by how many stars they have. Some industries routinely rely on survey systems to improve their customers’ experiences [2].

I understand that the idea behind patient satisfaction surveys is to encourage more communication. But at the end of the day, I believe that the doctor and the patient should have a strong mutual trust that enables them to communicate and give feedback freely and respectfully, without needing to rely on 30 ambiguous survey questions.



  1. White, B. (1999, January 01). Measuring Patient Satisfaction: How to Do It and Why to Bother. Retrieved April 17, 2018, from
  2. Columbus, L. (2018, April 22). “The State of Digital Business Transformation, 2018.” Retrieved April 25, 2018, from

Edited by Shaun Webb

Photo credit: Steve Harris

Special thanks to Blog Associate Editor, Janie Cao, for some last-minute content revisions

To learn more about the author, please visit her website here

Clinical Emotion Empathy General Patient-Centered Care

Are you a cheerleader or a fan? Examining motivation in medicine

One of my favorite aspects of medicine is the relationship between health and lifestyle. I think of lifestyle as all of the “stuff” that affects patients outside of the exam room, including diet, exercise, family relationships, and living accommodations. All of these things affect the physical body in ways that are not always immediately apparent. In my most recent rotation, my preceptor and I treated several obese women complaining of low back and hip pain.  Thinking about the relationship about weight and musculoskeletal pain, I was surprised that my preceptor never made suggestions to patients about increasing their activity level or improving their diets. “I’ve realized that I’m not a cheerleader,” he told me, when I questioned him. “Trying to make people change only ends in heartache for me.”

It’s difficult to think about how patients can change their lifestyles without first thinking about their motivation for change. January happens to be the perfect time talk about motivation since this is the time of the year when people are making those pesky New Year’s resolutions.  W.D. Falk, a philosopher, writes about motivation as a direct product of one’s morals, and divides motivation into two subtypes: motivational internalism and motivational externalism. Motivational internalists believe that one’s motivation for doing something is directly linked to how the activity in question relates to one’s morals. In other words, if a patient is convinced that exercise is a good, morally correct thing to do, that moral conviction will be enough to motivate them to exercise. On the contrary, motivational externalists see no link between one’s moral convictions and their motivation. No matter how important or morally correct our patients think something is, their motivation for changing their lives has to come from some external source. A patient may believe that exercise is a morally good activity, but this belief alone is not enough to actually motivate them to exercise.

Acknowledging the existence of these two groups (and of course, many shades of grey in between!) will allow us to understand how we may best help our patients without using a “one size fits all” methodology. Some patients may able to find the impetus for change within themselves. These patients may articulate specific plans to achieve a goal or they may have independently improved their own wellbeing in the past. Other patients may need external motivating factors to make changes necessary to improve their health, most often in the form of a trusted confidant. We need to use our best clinical judgment to decide which approach would work better for each patient.

My preceptor’s comments also helped me recognize that in addition to understanding our patients’ capacities for change, we also need to think of our own capacities for motivating our patients. Some physicians are cheerleaders willing to stand on the front lines with their patients. These practitioners feel energized by helping people make positive changes and are willing to make an emotional investment in their patients’ lives. They help their patients set goals, consistently communicate with patients about their progress, and are willing to act as an emotional support whether or not the goals get met. Other physicians may not see themselves as cheerleaders for change. These physicians still have a responsibility to discuss aspects of their patients’ lifestyles that need improvement; however, their role might take form as a “fan” in the stands, rather than a cheerleader on the sidelines. They can still cheer on their patients and check in with them about their lifestyle changes, but may need to help patients find someone else in their healthcare team who is willing to do the ground work that it takes to help patients set and reach goals. In fact, I believe that it is far better to honestly acknowledge that you are a lousy cheerleader than to try to help your patient, only to become disheartened by their lack of progress and abandon them out of sheer frustration before their goal is met. It’s only through an honest acknowledgement of our own abilities and limitations that we can help our patients change their lifestyles for the better.


Photo credit: Jeff Turner