Customer service didn't used to be closely associated with running a medical office but it has become increasingly important in order to survive in a competitive market. Consumers have more choices as to where they receive care and are increasingly conscious of what they're getting for their money. On top of that, insurers are starting to tie financial incentives to patient satisfaction.
To thrive in the new market, patient-centered care must be woven into the fabric of the practice, experts say. The whole staff needs to be involved in creating a culture of service that extends from the time a patient schedules an appointment to when they pay their final bill.
"It has to start from the top because if staff doesn't see it prioritized by the physician they won't care as much," says Lauren King, director of customer service at DoctorsManagement, a medical and healthcare consulting firm based in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's not just about having a one-hour workshop but establishing an ongoing campaign where someone is leading the cause and issuing frequent reminders."
Training is critical so that all staff members know their roles and how they impact patient satisfaction, says Owen Dahl, a practice management consultant based in The Woodlands, Texas. That might include roleplaying where staff members practice how to deal with different scenarios, such as an angry patient.
"The more you can do to train and review those scenarios with staff, the better off you will be," he says. "It reduces the stress on the part of staff members and helps them communicate better with the patient."
It helps to establish protocols and give staff the tools they need to deal with various types of patient encounters on their own, says Michael Munger, a family physician and medical director at St. Luke's South Primary Care in Overland Park, Kan. Empowering staff to work at the top of their licensure not only fosters teamwork but also strengthens their ties with patients.
"Staff members should be able to deal with certain issues without having to consult with a doctor," says Munger. "For example, we empower our medical assistants to talk to patients about their health screenings and immunizations or go over health habits. By doing that, we find that patients start to identify with the nurse and medical assistant as part of the overall team and feel a bond with them."
All staff members should not only know their role in the patient experience but also that they will be held accountable, says Julie Boisen, managing director for Navigant Consulting's Healthcare practice, based in its Plankinton, S.D. office. You can add specific questions to customer satisfaction surveys about the quality of care received from individual staff members, for example, or perform chart audits.
"If the medical assistant is in charge of measuring patients' height and weight and taking their blood pressure when they come in, make sure that actually occurs by conducting an audit," Boisen says. "Those procedures are reassuring to patients because it indicates that you monitor quality of care."
With ongoing training and frequent communication among physicians and staff, customer service will soon become second nature, says Munger.
"Everyone who touches the patient, not just the clinical staff, should be working as a team and talking to each other," he says. "You want your patients to think of you and your care team as an extended family."