While reviewing the next day's schedule, the staff at Overland Park, Kan.-based St. Luke's South Primary Care noted that an elderly patient scheduled to come in the next afternoon might have trouble getting to the exam room on her own. The medical assistant immediately made a note to deliver a wheelchair to the front desk in time to greet the patient and escort her back to the room — a plan that both pleased the patient and kept the office on schedule.
"Our experience is that when we plan or reach out to a patient ahead of time we can head off problems," says family physician Michael Munger, medical director at St. Luke's. "We find that patients like the extra attention and it tells them that we work as a team."
In the past, patients often felt connected to a practice primarily through their physician, but that's changing as healthcare moves toward team-based models. The physician-patient relationship is still at the core of the practice but other staff members are playing increasingly important roles in fortifying that tie and contributing to the overall patient experience.
Many patients feel strong personal connections with the medical assistants and advanced practitioners who manage a significant portion of their care, experts say. And those relationships increasingly impact patients' loyalty to the practice.
"Advanced practice providers are doing many of the things that physicians used to do and there's a growing recognition by patients of the role of the support staff in their care," says Julie Boisen, managing director for Navigant Consulting's Healthcare practice, based in the Plankinton, S.D., office. "Practices need to look beyond the physician relationship because every member of the staff has a role in serving the patient."
Creating a caring, efficient team requires more than telling staff what their roles are, experts say. Physicians also have to embrace the team concept and signal its importance by providing training, encouraging communication, and holding people accountable for their performance. Read on for tips on how to create a culture of customer service in your practice.
Patients' interactions with staff begin well before the visit when the appointment is scheduled. That's a critical time to make a positive first impression and set patient expectations so that there are no surprises when they arrive.
"The initial contact is so important," says Lauren King, director of customer service at DoctorsManagement, a medical and healthcare consulting firm based in Knoxville, Tenn. "How easy is it to make an appointment? Is the staff member trying to get me off the phone? Did they tell me what I need to bring and when to arrive?"
The scheduling call should include a brief discussion of the office's financial policy and the patient's payment responsibility on the day of the visit, says Owen Dahl, a practice management consultant based in The Woodlands, Texas. The key is consistency: If a discussion of financial responsibility is built into the scheduling process, patients will come to see payment as a routine part of their visit.
To ensure that patients get a clear message, the front-desk staff should undergo customer service training using scripted calls, says Boisen. That way, the patient experiences the same level of service every time they call, no matter who answers the phone.
Scripts dealing with common scenarios help staff establish standard protocols for greeting patients, interacting with them in the waiting room, and handing off to other staff members, she says. Throughout the visit, the patient should have the feeling that she is being cared for by a unified team rather than a series of disconnected individuals.