It is human nature to expect more in exchange for paying more. Healthcare is no exception. Patients are paying more out-of-pocket for services, and, as a result, their expectations for responsiveness, results, and access are increasing proportionately. Access to healthcare providers is eighth on a list of 10 new patient expectations I introduced in January.
How can you tell if your culture supports or represses responsiveness to patient questions, information or instruction? Here is a simple test:
Have you ever used the words "Accepting New Patients" on a sign, in a response to an inquiry or even in general conversation?
If the answer is “yes,” then you might want to change your words and your ways. A recent informal survey showed that 74 percent of patients reacted negatively to "Accepting New Patients" — many strongly — using descriptors such as "arrogant," "high-handed," and "conceited."
How we present ourselves is reflective of our work culture and attitudes toward others, including patients, their families, and caregivers.
Changing just one word from "Accepting" to "Welcoming New Patients" makes a vital difference in how patients perceive your office culture and how they will be treated.
Obviously, fixing the words is far easier than changing work culture. But, it is a start to becoming more responsive, to addressing and encouraging patients’ questions, and to becoming more accessible — a key to improving outcomes and engaging patients in self-care. A collateral benefit is that being more accessible is a key strategy to new patient acquisition, referrals and retention.
Here are some steps that can help you on your way:
Virtual Office Hours Extension: Extend office hours to 11 p.m. and weekends. You can offer the perception of extended hours without being open or adding staff for just a few dollars a day. How? Purchase a smartphone and have the office lines forwarded to the phone after hours. Rotate it between staff and either pay an on-call stipend or a per call amount, as well as a bonus for acquiring new patients. Notch it up by giving the smartphone number and an e-mail address to patients, and inviting calls, e-mails and, especially, texts. Make it even more sophisticated with a laptop with secure access to your practice management system to look up records and book appointments in real time.
Doctor’s Mobile Phone: Some doctors give their personal number or a special mobile phone number to patients for calls (voicemails) and texts, which they can respond to when convenient. It has a dramatic personal touch, but most people hesitate to call with anything other than an emergency (when they should be calling 911) and others want to be your new best friend.
Incoming and Outgoing E-mail and Text Capabilities: Add interactive e-mail and text, for general communications (written patient permission is required to communicate medical information to comply with HIPAA regulations). The 2011 Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project Study concluded that 31 percent of adults prefer to be contacted by text. Approximately three-quarters (73 percent) of U.S. adults text and 83 percent of U.S. adults are mobile phone owners. The study also found that 51 percent of adults would choose a voice call and 14 percent say it depends on the situation. Fifty-five percent of heavy texters — those who exchange 50 messages or more a day — prefer texting to talking. The data shows that this is a major medium being used. Offering this as an option for your patients gives you the perception of being that much more accessible.
Interactive Chat: Add a chat function to your website to answer basic questions or refer people directly (ReachLocal has an excellent and seamless service).
Mobile Device Accessible: Make your website mobile ready (conversion is less than $200) and add e-mail and text communication options on the home page. Almost a third of searches and two thirds of communications are made on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.
Be a Collaborative Resource: Don’t forget other physicians and allied health care providers — particularly to those who refer patients. Communicate new developments in your field and build lasting relationships. They improve your practice and the quality of health care overall.
As you can see, building or enhancing a patient-friendly work culture is hard work and it takes time. Keep in mind, however, that in addition to enhancing an environment to improve outcomes, it is also an investment that provides great returns including enhanced revenues and patient loyalty.
Find out more about James Doulgeris and our other Practice Notes bloggers.