As a practice management consultant, I'm often in the field speaking with practices and their administrators. Recently, I was approached with customer-service questions by two office managers from the same community — while their offices are only two blocks apart, each serves a very different patient demographic.
Practice No. 1 serves a very well-to-do segment of the community. The customer-service problem they are experiencing is patients' expectation of immediate service with all the trimmings. By the way, this practice is not a concierge practice, but rather, a "regular" practice. The doctor is very well respected and sought out for his clinical expertise, but he prefers to serve the entire community and does not want to cater only to wealthy patients.
Practice No. 2 serves a very poor population. Because many of their patients had complicated health issues and spent a fair amount of time in the practice, they decided to provide free coffee to patients in the waiting room. However, this good-will gesture has created a problem. There are a limited number of chairs in the reception area. Now, three or four times a week, patients return to the practice and sit in the reception area to enjoy a free cup of coffee, without consulting a care provider.
In many ways these scenarios are very similar. The goal of each practice is to serve the greater community with excellent care and top-notch customer service. Both practices should ask themselves:
• Are we catering to the extreme situation, or are we building our care model around the vast majority of patients served?
• How do we deal with extreme patient requests? Stand firm, and say no? Or, give in to patient demands even though that may create an issue with other patients?
Both practices conduct patient satisfaction surveys and neither found these particular circumstances to be a major issue when reviewing the overall results. However, when surveying the staff members, the responses were quite different. The staff was bothered by the extreme "patient demands" made in the first scenario and the crowded reception area in the second scenario. In addition, the staff felt that these patients were receiving special treatment which affected the other patients who were there for their regularly scheduled visit.
In the first practice, the administration decided to work more closely with staff, providing training sessions on how to deal with demanding patients. In addition, they created a space for a "sub-waiting" area using the space that formerly held paper medical records. The converted space allowed staff to remove the "special" patients from the main waiting area and has seemed to work out well.
In the second practice, accommodations have been made for the coffee drinkers, recognizing that the practice serves the greater community — they feel this is a service the practice can provide to those few individuals. Coffee drinkers not only get free coffee, they also interact with other patients which helps meet their individual need for socialization and relieve loneliness. The staff has worked a little harder at managing patient flow "in the back" which has shortened patient wait times. The quicker turnover of patients has resulted in fewer individuals waiting to talk with clinical staff, which has shortened the coffee shop stays.
While each practice is different, with a different set of patients to care for, both recognized that it is important to communicate together as a staff, gain a clear understanding of overall patient needs, and work together to fulfill the mission of their practice.
Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, is a nationally recognized medical practice management consultant and author of "Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits," "The Medical Practice Disaster Planning Workbook," and coauthor of "Lean Six Sigma for the Medical Practice: Improving Profitability by Improving Processes." He can be reached at [email protected] or 281 367 3364.