The Administrator’s Desk: Recruiting for Patient Satisfaction

April 1, 2008

Look for attitude, and not just skills and experience, when recruiting a new staffer.


When Joan Rissmiller interviews candidates for new positions at her Allentown, Pa., practice, she doesn’t just examine their resumes and skill sets. She also evaluates their attitudes.

“First impressions are lasting impressions, which is why hiring for patient satisfaction is so important to a practice,” says Rissmiller, a 25-year industry veteran and the practice administrator for Colon Rectal Surgery Associates. “I recently hired an individual who is like the sunshine,” she says. “She knows the patients and addresses them all by name. She knows their families and asks how they are. She makes them feel like they are the most important person there, and the patients just love it.”

Those who lack such social finesse, on the other hand, can not only create headaches for their coworkers (who have to deal with patient complaints), but also can cost practices money when frustrated patients take their charts and run. “We had a problem at my last practice with a front-desk clerk, and we started receiving all these patient complaints,” Rissmiller recalls. “I had to write her up a number of times and eventually showed that employee the door.”

And rightly so. In today’s competitive healthcare environment, the need for patient-friendly care at all levels of your practice, from medical assistants to nurses to clerical staff, has become more important than ever. “Everyone is trying to differentiate themselves, and patient satisfaction has become one of those factors we see a lot of clients target for improvement,” says Michael Tucker, a registered nurse and a senior search consultant for the healthcare recruiting firm Cejka Search. “At smaller practices, competition is even more important. Patients are going to go where they feel comfortable.”

Behavioral interviewing

Selecting candidates with strong customer-service skills often means asking the right questions. Behavioral interviewing techniques, whereby the interviewer asks the job candidate for specific examples about past experiences, can prove particularly useful. “Behavioral interviewing is based on the fact that past behavior is a very good indicator of future behavior,” explains Tucker. “When you ask someone to tell you about an experience and how they handled it, you can glean valuable insight into how they reacted in those moments of crisis.”

For example, try asking job candidates to share an interaction they had with a dissatisfied patient, and then ask them how they addressed it. Be sure to give them time to think. “The person doing the interview must be comfortable with extended silence,” says Tucker. “Give people the time it takes to think of an experience.” Tucker also suggests asking candidates to provide examples of how they helped a patient cope with anxiety or loss. “If they look at you like a deer in headlights,” he says, “you know they never considered that their job in the first place.”

If a positive attitude is among your top priorities, ask candidates to tell you what improvements they would have made in their last position. “If they would have changed everything and they have nothing but complaints, you can rest assured they’ll say the same thing about you,” notes Kathy Cullen, owner of a healthcare recruiting firm in Atlanta.

Who are your patients?

According to Rissmiller, practices should also consider their specific patients’ needs before making any new hire - particularly when filling front-desk positions. “At my last practice we had a large number of Hispanic patients, so I hired someone who spoke Spanish,” she says. “The patients walked in, and when they found out there was someone there they could communicate with they were delighted. It was a huge asset to our office.”

Though it may be tempting to fill vacant positions as quickly as possible, Tucker adds that it’s important to wait for an applicant who embodies the characteristics you seek. After all, employees who rub patients the wrong way will most likely cause internal problems as well. “If you hire a bad apple, it impacts everyone’s day,” says Tucker. “If you have a clerk who is unhelpful to a nurse, that nurse gets upset and it may affect their care of the next patient. It’s a domino effect.”

Look in your own backyard

Hiring for improved patient satisfaction is only half the battle, says Cullen. “If you have a really negative culture already, with high turnover, bringing in even the most positive person is not going to work,” she says. “You need to first take a look at your own culture as a group. Try to involve the physicians, and assess where you are in terms of office culture and patient satisfaction.”

Practices that are experiencing increased patient complaints and a high rate of patient turnover can try surveying existing and former patients to pinpoint where their problems lie. Some trade groups offer patient satisfaction surveys to help practices identify their strengths and areas for improvement.

Once physicians and administrators commit to looking in their own backyards to identify and target their operational weaknesses, it’s time to make good hires. Leadership must agree on the characteristics they are seeking in new recruits before they conduct interviews. That may include a strong customer-service orientation, flexibility, a good attitude, and the ability to handle the inevitable conflict that occurs in any office.


Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Physicians Practice.