Four Reasons Why Improving Patient Satisfaction is Good Business

July 15, 2012

Improving patient satisfaction is both good business and good medicine. It has the potential to decrease costs, reduce staff turnover, and mitigate risk.

Improving patient satisfaction is good business. It has a positive impact on a practice's bottom line because it lowers a variety of costs. At a meeting this week of the Gulf Coast MGMA in Houston, Dr. Jeffrey R. Steinbauer and Karla Heath of the Baylor College of Medicine described Baylor's experience with its "You FIRST" customer service program in its ambulatory clinics.

Some specific points are directly applicable to any practice and bear repeating.

Dissatisfied patients complain.

They complain to staff, and they often complain to the physician as well. These complaints rarely serve a constructive purpose other than letting the patient vent frustration. The patient is more likely to be placated than satisfied, making her even easier to irritate in the future.

The staff person hearing the complaint is not generally in a position to fix anything. The physician may or may not feel responsibility for the patient's irritation, but he knows that listening to the complaint is not what he came to the office to do. Listening to patients complain is not, in terms of the official responsibilities of the listener, a value-adding activity for the practice.

Constant patient dissatisfaction is depressing and leads to increased turnover of both physicians and staff.

Dissatisfied patients also complain to their friends. Some research shows that an unhappy patient tells 19 people. The effective number can be much higher for social media devotees.

Baylor provides comment cards for patients, and complaining patients are contacted within 72 hours. The follow-up activity serves two purposes: it provides evidence to the patient that someone is actually interested in the complaint, and the caller can get additional information to identify opportunities for systemic improvement.

Avoiding patient dissatisfaction in the first place is ideal. In the real world, positive responses to service failures can cement relationships, and unhappy incidents can lead to lasting improvements.

Full reception areas may indicate physician popularity, but the practice pays a high price.

One of the most common causes of patient dissatisfaction is a long wait, particularly for a short visit with the physician. Just getting control of the physician's schedule and communicating effectively about unavoidable delays go a long way toward increasing patient satisfaction with the practice.

I would add that long waits to see a provider increase both patient no-shows and practice operating costs. Neither of those is good for the bottom line.

Higher patient satisfaction mitigates risk.

Patients who are satisfied with their experience of care are less likely to seek legal redress, independent of the outcome. Although Steinbauer did not specifically mention it, there is also evidence that highly satisfied patients are more likely to be compliant with plans of care.

Some serious dissatisfaction can be easily remediated.

One anecdote concerned a physician whose practice generated an inordinate number of patient complaints. The physician was recognized as both competent and a nice person, so understanding of the situation required investigation. It turned out that the patients were dissatisfied with practice follow-through: calls were not timely returned; lab results were not reported to the patient; and, in general, the patients' expectations were not met. The root cause turned out to be the physician's inherent reticence. She was naturally shy and had neglected to explicitly state her expectations of staff. A consequence was that there were gaps in perceived responsibilities, which allowed things to fall through the cracks. Once the problem was understood it was quickly corrected.

Improving patient satisfaction is both good business and good medicine. It has the potential to decrease costs by limiting non-productive activities, reducing physician, staff and patient turnover, and mitigating risk. Patients will tell a practice what needs improvement. All the practice has to do is listen carefully, identify the underlying issues, and act to resolve them.

What particular issues does your practice have with patient satisfaction, and how do you deal with them? I would appreciate your feedback in the comment section below.

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