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What is Different Between Patient Experience, Satisfaction?

Patient experience and patient satisfaction have overlapping definitions, causing much confusion.

Patient experience and patient satisfaction are healthcare terms that are too often used interchangeably. Although they appear to be synonymous – a patient’s hospital experience should be satisfactory, one might assume – they are in fact separate terms that have entirely different meanings to healthcare professionals.

The difference between patient experience and patient satisfaction has implications for quality improvement in healthcare. Thus, it is vital that healthcare professionals understand the distinction between the two concepts and apply them appropriately to their work. Doing so will drive patient-centered care and make those pursuits more precise.

Defining patient experience

Many key industry stakeholders and government agencies have set out to define patient experience. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) defines patient experience as follows:

Patient experience encompasses the range of interactions that patients have with the health care system, including their care from health plans, and from doctors, nurses, and staff in hospitals, physician practices, and other health care facilities. As an integral component of health care quality, patient experience includes several aspects of health care delivery that patients value highly when they seek and receive care, such as getting timely appointments, easy access to information, and good communication with health care providers.

The Beryl Institute, a healthcare organization dedicated to improving the patient experience, says patient experience is “the sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care.”

Ultimately, the patient experience is about looking at various aspects of the healthcare system – from communication to safety to hospital environment – and determining if they portray quality care.

CAHPS surveys are a measure of patient experience, according to AHRQ. These surveys are an objective measure of hospital quality as perceived by patients.

“CAHPS surveys do not ask patients how satisfied they were with their care; rather, they ask patients to report on the aspects of their experiences that are important to them and for which they are the best, and sometimes the only source of information,” the agency wrote on its website.

“Because the surveys ask well-tested questions using a consistent methodology across a large sample of respondents, they generate standardized and validated measures of patient experience that providers, consumers, and others can rely on,” AHRQ continued.

Defining patient satisfaction

Patient satisfaction is about a patient’s expectations for his or her care encounter, according to AHRQ. In other words, patient satisfaction is a subjective healthcare measure. Two patients can receive the exact same care, but have different satisfaction levels because they had different subjective expectations, AHRQ said.

For example, asking patients if they had access to their health records is a measure of patient experience. Patient data access is an objective quality measure.

Patient satisfaction would be about determining if the patient was pleased with the room layout. While there are some standards that would be conducive to a high exam room satisfaction score, it is ultimately a subjective measure.

Patient satisfaction appears to be a far less official measure or concept in the healthcare space. A simple Google search will reveal that far fewer government agencies and bona fide professional organizations use patient satisfaction as a standard for healthcare quality.

While this fact may not discredit the importance of patient satisfaction, it does indicate that the industry uses patient experience measures for quality improvement.

Discerning the difference

Healthcare professionals may place a high value on patient experience because it has the power to spark quality improvement in clinics and hospitals. Conducting a patient experience survey, such as a CAHPS survey, can help determine whether objective quality measures have been met.

For example, did the provider discuss discharge and follow-up care details with the patient? A yes or no answer to this question will give actionable insights into whether the hospital experience actually improved patient care, not whether or not the patient had a good time.

All of this is not to say that patient satisfaction is not important. The healthcare industry has become consumer-centric, especially as patients spend more of their own money to pay for healthcare. Organization leaders are looking to drive patient satisfaction – and not just experience – to maintain or grow their market share.

“As consumers have more choice and healthcare decisions impact their wallets more, they will increasingly compare their healthcare experience to the expectations they have developed in other aspects of their lives,” said Banner Health Vice President of the Consumer Experience Center Dave Kriesand in a previous interview. “Healthcare organizations will need to live up to a new service expectation if they want to continue to win the business of their service savvy customers.”

Care quality will always trump food quality or other hospital amenities. If a patient does not receive proper care or experiences an adverse hospital event, she will not be pleased regardless of the hospital perks. But satisfaction is also becoming increasingly important, and it would be beneficial for healthcare organizations to remember that.

Ultimately, providing a quality care encounter will help drive high patient satisfaction, according to Deirdre Mylod, PhD, Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation and Senior Vice President of Research and Analytics at Press Ganey. Patient satisfaction and patient experience may go hand-in-hand.

“The way that we approach improvement for patient experience measures is to reframe it. The exercise is not to make consumers happy. The exercise is to reduce patient suffering,” Mylod said in an interview with

While the goal is to drive patient experience and reduce hospital harms, these efforts require providers to look at elements of patient satisfaction. Making sure a patient is watching a TV program she prefers will prevent her from reaching too far for a remote control, thus potentially preventing a patient fall or injury.

Conversely, clear communication amongst patients and members of the care team is certainly a quality indicator that can also improve satisfaction by making the patient feel safer.

The definitions for patient satisfaction and patient experience are indeed closely linked, and in some cases co-dependent. However, using both patient satisfaction and experience interchangeably could lead to imprecise patient-centered care efforts. It is important to use these terms properly to better inform care improvement efforts.

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