Enhancing the Patient Experience with Exceptional Customer Service

January 9, 2017

Customer service has become an integral component of maintaining a successful practice. Here's how to improve the patient experience.

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.   

Time-sensitivity

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."

Managing first impressions

Chip Bell, a customer service keynote speaker and author from Greensboro, Ga., says that patients can be extremely forgiving, especially when great care is taken to provide memorable first impressions and otherwise exceptional service. "[Patients]'get' the unpredictable nature of healthcare and are more patient, less demanding, and more forgiving of errors in an environment of great service," says Bell. "However, they also expect the provider to manage their wait, just like Disney manages long waits for popular rides by using distractions to make it seem go by faster." A 2014 study in the American Journal of Managed Care found that longer wait times correlated with negative perceptions of care and lower levels of patient satisfaction. Bell says one way that practices can remedy this is by utilizing a pager device, like the ones used by restaurants, and send patients for a complimentary coffee at a nearby restaurant until the physician is ready to see them.

"Keep in mind that your practice is [constantly] making first impressions," says Hachem. From the first interaction with the scheduling department to the first visit to the office and meeting with the physician, each encounter is an opportunity to solidify a positive first impression as well as generate ongoing referrals. "The first impression is often the determining factor of whether the patient will return and whether they will refer others," says Minars.

To create a welcoming environment, Bell recommends practices break away from the age old reliance on a few televisions and tattered magazines scattered around the reception area. Instead, modernized reception areas - complete with complimentary Wi-Fi, tablets, and handheld video games - may not only minimize the angst associated with wait times, but can contribute to a positive and lasting first impression as well. "Be creative and personalized," says Bell. "What if you let patients choose the channel? What if you had several TV's with headsets like at the gym?" Thinking of your practice as a destination or attraction may reveal additional unique ways to create a memorable patient experience. From paint selection to small touches like framed art or flowers, each item in the reception area - and ultimately, the practice - should be carefully chosen to fit with this theme.

While making a positive first impression is important, the rest of the encounter must be carefully orchestrated also. "The first impression means nothing if other pieces of their experience, or subsequent visits, are not handled well," says Hachem. "It's the patient's perception of the entire interaction that matters. They are more likely to remember the one thing that didn't go so well than the many that did."

One final small way to leave a lasting good impression is to encourage and allow time for patient questions during a visit. "'Tell me what questions and concerns you have,' is an invitation for patients to ask important questions about their fears or confusion," says Stamp. This open-ended format may prompt patients to verbalize their thoughts as opposed to the typical close-ended, "Do you have any questions?" It can also demonstrate the compassion of the physician and care team as well as how well they communicate with one another, which is a "primary influencer of a patient's experience," according to Stamp.

Biggest patient turnoffs

Besides long wait times and lackluster first impressions, patients have other concerns too. With the entire industry buzzing about patient-centered care, treating patients as people and individuals would seem natural. However, with physicians under pressure to provide efficient care to increasingly large patient panels, this doesn't always happen.

"We must do all we can to eradicate the 'assembly line' mentality that pervades so many offices and alienates so many good patients. The biggest turnoff is the doctor and/or staff treating patients as commodities and not as fellow human beings. It's that simple," says Kona. To turn this around, he recommends that physicians and their staff treat each patient as if they are family. "If your patients were your relatives…would you talk to them that way? Make them stand there ignored for 10 minutes, not even bothering to look at them?" asks Kona. "No. You would be friendly and helpful in any way you can and make things as pleasant as possible for them."

Forming a family-like relationship with patients can alleviate other patient turnoffs too, such as lack of communication. "It's amazing how many patients complain of not being taken seriously when voicing concerns," says Kona. He adds this can easily be remedied by listening to patients' concerns, considering their stance, and then offering an appropriate response. Stamp offers advice too. "At the risk of over-simplifying a complex issue like interpersonal communication, [my] advice for physicians and other [providers] is stop being concerned only about what you say and pay more attention to how much you actively listen to patient and family questions, concerns, and fears," he says.  

Patients can quickly pick up on indifference and lack of professionalism in their caretakers. While everyone has an off day now and then, it's critical that the entire care team is invested in creating a positive patient experience. "[Patients] hate indifferent service worse than bad service and they abhor employees with an attitude," says Bell. "[Patients] have more options today than ever before and switching costs are much lower with far less hassle."

Practices with subpar service risk losing patients to those who prioritize customer service. Bell says focusing on simplifying the patient experience, aiming for comfort, and maintaining a non-bureaucratic process, whenever possible, can keep patients from looking elsewhere. "Just because the patient is sick or hurt does not mean a healthcare provider is given a pass on anything less than great service," says Bell. "Just because the patient did not choose to be there, like choosing a restaurant or retail store, does not alter their expectations for caring, attentive service."

Steph Weber is a freelance writer hailing from the Midwest. She writes about healthcare, finance, and small business, but finds her passion for the medical field growing in sync with the ever-changing healthcare laws.