Patient Experience vs. Patient Engagement: Where’s the Sweet Spot?

What’s the difference between patient experience and patient engagement? How are they similar? We answer, and share how providers can improve both.

Elevating the patient experience is quickly becoming a primary goal for most healthcare organizations. With today’s consumers having so many options for care — and higher expectations than ever before — honing the patient experience offers healthcare organizations a way to gain a competitive edge.

However, we can’t talk about the patient experience without talking about patient engagement — two very different things.

Put simply, a positive patient experience is usually contingent on excellent patient engagement practices.

In this post, we’ll:

  • Define patient engagement vs. patient experience
  • Explore how they differ and what they have in common
  •  Determine how they can work together to improve the healthcare journey

Patient Experience and Patient Engagement: What Are They Exactly?

That’s a good question.

While a universally agreed-upon definition of patient experience does not yet exist, several organizations have attempted to draft their own, including:

  • “The sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care.” (The Beryl Institute)
  • “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 healthcare facilities.” (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality – AHRQ)
  • "Everything we say and do that affect sour patients’ thoughts, feelings and well-being.” (Society of Hospital Medicine)

While all unique, they seem to agree that patient experience is the patient’s collective impression of the set of touchpoints they encounter within the healthcare ecosystem.

When it comes to defining patient engagement, there is more agreement.

Researchers from Columbia University School of Nursing and Mailman School of Public Health analyzed mentions of the term in health literature and formulated this definition:

  • “The desire and capability to actively choose to participate in care in a way uniquely appropriate to the individual, in cooperation with a healthcare provider or institution for the purposes of maximizing outcomes or experiences of care.”

That’s quite a mouthful! Let’s break it down a bit.

The research highlights that patient engagement is both a behavior and a process. In other words, it applies to the patient’s actions in engaging with their care (behavior), as well as the provider’s efforts to encourage these actions (process).

Patients “engage” by learning about their conditions, asking the provider questions, and scheduling regular appointments. But it’s also the provider’s responsibility to “engage” the patient, by offering clear communication, responding to their questions, offering appointments in multiple formats, and making it easy for the patient to schedule them.

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How Patient Experience and Engagement Differ — and What They Share

What’s the difference between patient experience and patient engagement? It’s actually pretty simple: One is made up of actions, the other of interactions. Now, which is which?

Patient engagement revolves around the actions a person takes (or doesn’t take) to participate in their care. Patient experience is the sum total of the interactions a person has with their care providers and the care environment.

That said, these care experience concepts share a few important things, too. This is where the relationship between them gets really interesting:

  • First, both require active participation of the healthcare provider to be successful. It’s easy to see how patient experience demands a care provider’s involvement, because they are offering healthcare services to the patient. But providers are no less important to patient engagement.

    And we’re not just talking about physicians here.

    Both clinical and office staff can educate the patient about the opportunities they have to engage with their own care, encourage them to do so, and reciprocate with timely communication when they do. The healthcare organization as a whole also plays a part in engaging patients through advertising, corporate communications — and in the case of technology solutions, its choice of software.  
  • Second, both patient experience and patient engagement are cumulative. This is essential to understand if you want to see either of them improve.

    It’s not possible to “achieve” a positive patient experience or positive patient engagement through a single event or encounter. Both are a collection of interactions (patient experience) or actions (patient engagement).

    Each event, though important, is always part of the bigger picture when measuring patient experience and patient engagement.

The Sweet Spot: When Patient Experience and Engagement Interconnect

This is where the magic happens. Patient engagement is an absolutely vital part of the patient experience. It’s the cornerstone of the relationship between you and your patients. Patient engagement builds and nurtures that relationship — and that influences everything the patient experiences along the way.

So, what’s the opportunity for healthcare providers who want to up their patient experience game?

Patient engagement offers a refreshingly direct path to a better patient experience. If you improve engagement, you improve the overall patient experience. It’s almost like getting two for one.

Start with your patient engagement. Look for ways to reach out and involve your patients in their care. Each touchpoint is an opportunity to feed a positive patient experience.


Here’s an example of how this can work in the real world:

A medical clinic sends a satisfaction survey to a patient post-appointment. Patients who respond to the survey, whether they offer positive feedback or negative, have taken one step toward better patient engagement, and that’s a good thing.

But that’s not all: The clinic’s simple act of asking for the patient’s input (engagement) has an immediate positive effect on their patient experience. Asking for their feedback opens a dialogue and makes patients feel valued. And in this specific example, it also gives providers concrete insights on what aspects of patient experience they should improve.

This is just one small way medical facilities can elevate their patient experience. It gives you insight into the patient’s assessment of their experience. Using that information, you can make very intentional decisions to encourage both better patient engagement and experience at every turn.

The Bottom Line: Improve Both and Patients Win

Patient experience and patient engagement are different but highly interconnected concepts. Take the steps to strengthen your patient engagement and you can’t help but improve your patient experience, overall.

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