The emerging link between patient satisfaction, quality scores, and payment models has led practices to focus on implementing new customer service techniques. Thanks to a range of social media and online review sites, patients who are dissatisfied with their healthcare experience can share that information far and wide. The resulting digital footprint can have an immediate negative impact on a practice, especially since 84 percent of patients trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, according to a 2016 BrightLocal survey.
Here's how to improve customer service at your practice.
One of the most frequent patient complaints arises from long or uncertain wait times. While this is by no means intentional, it's a natural byproduct of the unpredictability that can plague most medical practices. "Getting behind in our work, resulting in delays is the bane of our [profession]," says John Kona, an orthopedic surgeon in Farmville, Va. "We try to run a tight ship, but there's always something [that happens]."
While delays are seemingly inevitable, physicians and their staff can choose how to respond to patients. Kona believes that a lack of physician awareness of the patient's wait may lead to even greater patient frustrations. "Too often, the doctor will breeze in the room and start asking questions, ignoring the half-hour wait. From a patient's perspective, that can be maddening," says Kona.
There is a simple solution, according to a 2013 Software Advice survey. It found that while 97 percent of patients are frustrated by long waits, 70 percent of patients said their frustrations would be lessened following a personal apology from the doctor. "You have to acknowledge the inconvenience, apologize for keeping them waiting, and be sincere in doing so. If your sincerity gets through, patients can be remarkably understanding," says Kona.
This advice isn't just for physicians though. Staff should be cognizant of patient wait times and the resulting impact as they are frequently the ones who inform patients of delays. "When patients are kept waiting, our staff is trained to constantly update the patients so they do not feel overlooked. Other effective gestures include offering coffee, magazines, and apologizing profusely," says Todd Minars, a board-certified dermatologist in Hollywood, Fla.
Using the C.A.L.M. approach — compose, apologize, listen, and make it right — when communicating with dissatisfied or angry patients may be helpful too, experts say.
"When patients are upset, we need to control our own emotions so that their concern does not escalate," says Burl Stamp, founder of Stamp & Chase, a healthcare communication consulting firm in St. Louis, Mo. "That starts with composing ourselves and objectively thinking about what we need to accomplish in the conversation."
That conversation should start with a "blameless apology" that recognizes the patient's inconvenience and frustration, but does not place the onus on either party. Staff should listen intently as the patient expresses their concern or disappointment and then explain how the practice will make it right. According to Stamp, patients may actually express greater satisfaction levels when an issue is handled with efficiency and compassion.
Not everyone agrees on the blameless apology approach. "It's really important for staff to take accountability and always take the high ground," says Fadi Hachem, manager of patient experience at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush located in Chicago, Ill. "In the age of social media, it is especially important that patients don't leave angry or without some type of resolution because then the patient will seek out other outlets — like Facebook or Healthgrades — to share their feedback."