What Words Convey

The Potential for Patient Narratives to Inform Quality Improvement

Published in: The Milbank Quarterly, Volume 91, No. 1, pages 176-227 (2019). doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12374

by Rachel Grob, Mark Schlesinger, Lacey Rose Barre, Naomi S. Bardach, Tara Lagu, Dale Shaller, Andrew M. Parker, Steven C. Martino, Melissa L. Finucane, Jennifer L. Cerully, et al.

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For the past 25 years, health care providers and health system administrators have sought to improve care by surveying patients about their experiences. More recently, policymakers have acted to promote this learning by deploying financial incentives tied to survey scores. This article explores the potential of systematically elicited narratives about experiences with outpatient care to enrich quality improvement.


Narratives were collected from 348 patients recruited from a nationally representative Internet panel. Drawing from the literature on health services innovation, we developed a two-part coding schema that categorized narrative content in terms of (a) the aspects of care being described, and (b) the actionability of this information for clinicians, quality improvement staff, and health system administrators. Narratives were coded using this schema, with high levels of reliability among the coders.


The scope of outpatient narratives divides evenly among aspects of care currently measured by patient experience surveys (35% of content), aspects related to measured domains but not captured by existing survey questions (31%), and aspects of care that are omitted from surveys entirely (34%). Overall, the narrative data focused heavily on relational aspects of care (43%), elaborating on this aspect of experience well beyond what is captured with communication-related questions on existing surveys. Three-quarters of elicited narratives had some actionable content, and almost a third contained three or more separate actionable elements.


In a health policy environment that incentivizes attention to patient experience, rigorously elicited narratives hold substantial promise for improving quality in general and patients' experiences with care in particular. They do so in two ways: by making concrete what went wrong or right in domains covered by existing surveys, and by expanding our view of what aspects of care matter to patients as articulated in their own words and thus how care can be made more patient-centered. Most narratives convey experiences that are potentially actionable by those committed to improving health care quality in outpatient settings.

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