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Harry Potter and the Elusive Patient Survey

Harry Potter scarf, book and wand for blog on missing patient survey | Vanguard | Denver, CO, Jacksonville, FL

The magical connection between J.K. Rowling’s rejected Harry Potter book and the patient survey you may be rejecting

A little-known story about the creation of Harry Potter occurred in 1995 after J.K. Rowling’s manuscript was rejected by twelve publishers. Rowling’s agent gave Nigel Newton, the chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing, the manuscript of her first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” to review.

Newton didn’t read the manuscript but asked his eight-year-old daughter, Alice, to read it. Alice came down from her room an hour later and told Newton, “Dad, this is so much better than anything else. You’ve gotta publish this.” The next day Newton made out a check to Joanne Kathleen Rowling for £2,500 (Kathleen is not her real name but her grandmother’s). The Harry Potter books have since proved one of the wisest investments in publishing history as it is the world’s all-time best-selling novel series.

The J.K. Rowling story is a lesson for medical practices. (Recently the author has been embroiled in a social media controversy that some say exhibits an anti-transgender sentiment; but that’s another story.) When we want to evaluate our medical practices, we often ask other physicians, our staff and medical marketing experts how to assess the doctor-patient relationship. A more effective technique is to ask our patients – the ones who count – about their experiences in our practices.

How would Harry Potter motivate people to take a patient survey?

I have found it challenging to obtain surveys from my patients in most medical practices, including my own. There are many times when I have asked patients if they would complete a survey, and they assured me that they would. I gave them a card with the URL of several online surveys, yet very few would complete a survey, perhaps 1%-2%.

So how do you motivate patients to complete a survey? One of the most effective ways to find out is to ask! When a patient walks out your door, do you know if she or he had a great experience, a mediocre one or a poor one?

In surveys that gauge the patient experience, less is more

I have found that I am most successful if I create a short survey that takes approximately three minutes for a patient to complete. Patients are not likely to participate in surveys that run more than five minutes. I am most interested in the patient experience, which includes interactions with the staff and the doctor. My questions are:

  • Were you able to obtain an appointment in a timely fashion, three to five days, for a non-urgent medical issue?
  • Were you seen on time when you came to the office, i.e., within 15 minutes of your designated appointment time?
  • Was the staff courteous and friendly?
  • Did the doctor and/or nurse answer all your questions?
  • Would you recommend our practice to family and friends?

These are the main issues that impact patient satisfaction, and it is these questions that I would like to have their answers to and learn of their experience with the staff and the doctors.

You must know what patients think about their healthcare experience to build and maintain a healthy doctor-patient relationship.

Directly asking for the patient survey leads to improved patient satisfaction

My staff and I make a point to ask almost every patient to complete the survey. The patient takes the survey about his or her experience while in the office.

We have a kiosk in every room that easily accesses the survey, and patients complete the survey while they are in the exam room before checking out and making their next appointment. offers suggestions for an effective patient survey (modified below with their permission).

  1. Avoid open-ended questions such as “What did you think about the office’s décor?” Instead, ask questions that can be answered quickly by “yes” or “no.”
  2. Keeping the questions on a single topic makes it easy for the patient to follow.
  3. You don’t have to have all your questions answered in one survey. There will be other times when additional surveys make sense. For example, if you add a new service or provider, create a new survey to obtain feedback on the new technology or personnel.
  4. Deep six the paper. Patients prefer electronic surveys rather than paper surveys.
  5. Timeliness is indeed next to godliness. Conduct the surveys when the patient is in the exam room, but if you can’t do it then, send a survey within 24-48 hours of the patient’s encounter. A timely request ensures that patients remember their visit and are more likely to respond.
  6. If you email the survey to the patient, make it personal and use the patient’s name in the subject line or at the beginning of the survey.

Use technology to help with your surveys

I suggest using technology that allows your survey to be sent to patients automatically after their appointment.

Test it before you use it. After building the survey, ask a few friends or team members for their opinions. Doing this will help you see if it is too long or confusing. It will also help you identify any other potential glitches before sending them to your patients.

Update your survey regularly, perhaps yearly. A new survey keeps patients engaged and allows you to change questions appropriately for your practice.

Building a trusting doctor patient relationship isn’t magic

You must know what patients think about their healthcare experience to build and maintain a healthy doctor-patient relationship. Patient satisfaction, retention and practice success are closely tied to how people feel about their physician and his or her staff.

One of the best ways to find out is to use patient surveys and to have the results posted on your practice website. What might have happened to the birth of Harry Potter if 8-year-old Alice didn’t give her father advice to publish J.K. Rowling’s first of seven books?


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