Managing Patient Expectations: Explaining the Reality of Medicine

March 1, 2012

Fed by the Internet, television, and advertising, patients may feel relief is one pill or procedure away. Here's how to manage this patient expectation at your medical practice.

Understanding what your customers expect, and accommodating those expectations, is a fundamental tenet of any successful business. Patient expectations, attitudes, and perceptions have changed in 10 important ways for a multitude of reasons; paying for more and more services out of pocket is first among them.

You may recall my previous blog post, in which I outlined the 10 most fundamental changes in patient expectations. This article resulted in a successful educational seminar through which medical professionals learn how to improve the quality of care, outcomes, and practice performance by implementing a variety of recommended strategies. Given the popularity of the subject, my subsequent articles will go into greater detail of each expectation.

Here is a highlight of number 10 - the impression that there is a cure or treatment for everything. That notion has been imprinted onto the national psyche thanks to the Internet, television, popular press, and especially advertising and promotions: All one needs is the right doctor, technology, pill, or procedure. So many people have so much faith that medical science will have a solution, the myth arguably manifests itself in increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.
Sure, the limitations of medical science and technology are duly represented, but, it is human nature to filter things and to believe that we are a step removed, maybe even charmed.

Advertisements, websites, and promotional materials feature reassuring images that are interpreted as almost magical solutions while the small print enumerates government-required disclaimers on side effects from dizziness to death. Yet, what the public retains is the thought of a magical elixir that will offer the miracle cure, and chalk up the side effects to a “many will enter, few will win” mentality.

The limitations of medical science and technology represent a different reality. Although there is tragedy and frustration among the miracles, there is also opportunity to do well by doing good.

Here's how:

Educate – While it is true that eight out of 10 people turn to the Internet with health concerns, it is also true that people primarily treat the Internet like an encyclopedia, not the Yellow Pages. People are overwhelmingly using the Internet to seek solutions, not providers. When seeking providers, they ask their friends and physicians first.

Be the authority – Feature what you treat and how you treat it, and why you believe your approach is superior. Otherwise, be the authority on solutions. You will control much more of your own destiny. Patients will come to you.

Manage expectations – By focusing on success rates, wellness, and the importance of early diagnosis, you are also managing expectations and enhancing outcomes at the same time. People understand and accept reality when it is explained by professionals.

How can you capture these opportunities?

• Make your website an education destination: Feature original educational pieces (300 words to 600 words) on wellness, self-diagnosis, and self-care tips. Rotate the content often to keep it fresh, and archive it for searchable, easy reference.

• Feature new technologies and treatments, and why you do or do not use them.

• Focus on wellness, self diagnosis, and disease management.

• Hire experienced and knowledgeable healthcare marketing professionals to develop your website and materials (and farm development out to the techies). This is not about pretty pictures and fancy features.

• Proactively reinforce your message (and keep in touch with your patients while encouraging their personal referrals) with monthly e-mail newsletter distribution.

• Educate your physician, allied health, and related referral partners on new diagnoses and treatments (be their authority). Too often, physicians refer patients to specialists based upon a postcard or a chance meeting in the absence of those they know and trust. They always refer to those they know and trust.

• Team with your hospital for public education seminars (including medical sessions for professionals). Reinforce yourself as an expert and thought leader in those areas in which you are.

• Be interactive and encourage questions of your patients, peers, and allied health partners.

Professional management tenets include these essentials: research, mastering fundamentals, communication, and education. In my experience, when you get these essentials right, everything else from reform to regulation is more easily accommodated and the business of healthcare becomes as much about doing well as doing good - as it should be.

Find out more about James Doulgeris and our other Practice Notes bloggers.