E-Patient Update: If Hospitals Were Like Airports

Almost everyone reading this blog has spent some time in an airport. And though not much of it is visible on the surface, airlines do an amazing job of managing people and things seamlessly while you sit reading the New York Times and drinking your latte. People are ushered on and off of flights, baggage is dispatched around the world and airplanes maintained and fueled at a miraculous pace. Although, you probably forget about that when it’s your flight that has delays or issues.

The hospitals many of us work for also do an amazing job of managing people and things, typically in a way that patients never need notice. While the carefully orchestrated dance of care plays out, patients simply eat their meals, sleep, visit with their friends and family and provide whatever bodily fluids are necessary to diagnose them. Meanwhile, multi-million dollar IT systems help see to it that the process works.

In some ways, however, the two industries are quite different in how they work with the people they serve. And in my opinion, the healthcare system would work better if it borrowed from the airlines when it comes to using IT to simplify the customer experience.

Status updates

One thing airlines do well is keep passengers informed about the status of their flight, or the flights of those for whom they might be waiting. Airlines began posting real-time schedules and allowing passengers to preregister for flights from early in the emergence of the commercial Internet.

In more recent times, the airlines have added a mobile dimension to their customer experience, offering small but valuable services like reminder texts and mobile-only information. While being able to check on your flight from your home desktop is great, it’s even better to know what’s up as you head for the airport, and mobile apps make this possible.

Traffic information

Unlike hospitals, airlines post scrolling information on key progress indicators — i.e. arrivals and departures. While you, as a consumer, typically only need to know the status of your own flight, having a comprehensive information source sometimes allows you to better understand delays, orient yourself to time and place and even make a mental note as to which destinations your chosen airline travels.

Such displays don’t disclose any personal information about passengers, but they still offer some value to individuals, if for no other reason than that having this information available helps to put airline staff and consumers on the same page.


These days, many airlines allow passengers to check in for their flights and print tickets without ever speaking to a human clerk. The process not only saves time, but also personal aggravation, as waiting in long airline ticketing queues can be quite tiring.

Checking in at a kiosk also offers passengers additional reassurance that they are indeed booked on the fight of their choice, allows them to confirm their seating choice and in some cases, even add additional flight options.

Transparency is key

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. By exposing what might otherwise have been internal systems to consumers, airlines have substantially improved aspects of their customers’ experience. And they’ve done so without exposing individualized data or subjecting themselves to increased risk of hacking episodes. On the other hand, while health systems and hospitals have dabbled in these areas — for example, by posting ED waiting times on the web — it’s still something of a rarity for them to share live patient information.

Admittedly, hospitals may be leery of giving the patient too much visibility into the process they undergo. After all, their interaction with consumers is a good deal more complex than that of the airline industry, and they don’t have time to explain what they’re doing and why beyond a certain degree.

Still, as a patient who wants to know what the heck is going on with my care, a little transparency would go a long way. If you want patients to be prepared to care for themselves, treat them like adults and include them in what you’re doing.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.