Patient satisfaction – customer service, really – in hospitals and healthcare: It’s time for the industry to raise the bar—and it needs to get a move on. Even though the goal of customer satisfaction in healthcare service is easily lost in the shuffle of partisan healthcare-related news headlines.
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So, let me to share some quick (ish) ways to win with healthcare customer service and patient satisfaction, drawn from my work as a consultant and speaker on customer service, patient satisfaction, and (perhaps most important here), corporate culture. These suggestions will, I have every hope, help uplift your institution in the eyes of your patients and their loved ones: in other words, your customers.
Yet, the stakes are high, going far beyond low HCAHPS scores, when patients and their loved ones are mistreated. High for the patients, and high for the institutions involved: Lawsuits can be triggered as easily by simple unkindness as by bona fide medical mistakes; institutions have a hard time growing when they are unable to command patient (or employee) loyalty.
Patients don’t stop being consumers – customers – when they put on a hospital gown.
The biggest obstacle to improving customer service in healthcare is the industry’s insular nature and the way this makes its problems self-reinforcing. In other words, healthcare providers and institutions compare themselves to each other – to the hospital in the next town, the surgeon in the next O.R. – and benchmark their customer service accordingly. And to do so is to set the bar too low.
It’s not as if patients stop being consumers – customers – when they put on a hospital gown. And it’s not as if their loved ones surrender their identities as businesspeople, twitterers, Facebook users, either, when they enter your institution. So, it’s time to benchmark healthcare customer service against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your patients and their loved ones will do.
Every patient’s interaction with healthcare is judged based on expectations set by the best players in hospitality industry, the financial services industry, and other areas where expert players have made a science of customer service.
First things first: Fix your hellos and your goodbyes
Psychological research, most notably by memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, has proven that the first and last items in any list are by far the most easily remembered. In customer service, the same principle holds true: The first and last moments of a customer interaction are what a customer is likely to hold in memory as the permanent “snapshot” that encompasses the whole event. It is very hard to recover the goodwill of a patient whose first impression is:
• A front-desk staff member’s irritation at being “interrupted”–even for that telltale half-second.
• Spending a long, tense time finding a parking space (and when she does, the space she finds is a six minute walk to the front door—and she’s on crutches).
• Signage in the building that is confusing (once she finally does manage to hobble the six minutes to the front door).
As far as goodbyes: Your goodbye needs to be better than just a chilly invoice sent through the mail by your billing service. (Why do veterinarians universally follow up to see how Rover is doing but physicians rather rarely do the same? It could make all the difference.)
Realize that expectations of speed have changed: Your patients are not as patient as they used to be
Patients live in a world where Droids and iPhones, laptops and iPads, can connect them – instantly! – to vetted advice from the Mayo Clinic. Where Amazon.com can get them a book of expert advice instantly in electronic form, or within eleven hours in hardcover. So to think you can get back to patients with information at the same sluggish pace you always have doesn’t cut it. Patients don’t want you to shoot from the hip, but they need to be kept informed. Frequently and speedily. And, by the way, they don’t expect lab results to take three days. Nothing takes three days anymore, outside of the healthcare industry.
Everyone on your team needs to know how to apologize
Resolving patient issues means knowing how to apologize for service lapses pointed out by a patient. It means getting rid of the defensiveness (or, at best: apathy) that tends to mar the healthcare industry when confronted by a patient upset with what she perceives to be a service gaffe. Instead, take your patient’s side in these situations, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. And spread this approach throughout your staff through role-playing and other training devices, so it will serve you fully every time a patient hits the fan.
The key to a great healthcare team is getting across the difference between each employee’s purpose in the organization—as opposed to one’s mere job function.
A particularly crucial aspect of great patient service is ensuring that every employee—from orientation onward –understands her particular underlying purpose in your organization and appreciates its importance. An employee has both a function—his day-to-day job responsibilities—and a purpose—the reason why the job exists. (For example, ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients” is a purpose. “To change linens” is a function. A properly trained and managed employee will know to—and will be empowered to—stop changing linens if creating successful medical outcomes or being hospitable require a different action at the moment. And afterward, she will be celebrated for doing so, not scolded for being a few short in the number of linens changed.
Or: Have you ever been to a hospital and stared, obviously bewildered, at a confusing sign—while a security guard idly stands there ‘‘protecting’’ you, all of two feet away? Did the security guard proactively help you out with an ‘‘Anything I can help you find?’’ If he worked in an excellent health care facility, he would. At orientation, you would have started him off understanding his higher purpose: ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients.” Sure, that could include deterring and apprehending bad guys, but it also includes attending to patients and their families who have that unmistakable lost look on their faces.
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