Managing Patient Referrals, Retention, and Risk the Disney Way

June 7, 2012
James Doulgeris

Lessons from Disney can offer physicians three key components to consistently create a positive patient experience.

There are fundamental similarities between selected Disney best practices and the foundation for programs aimed at improving patient retention, referrals, reducing risk of malpractice, and even competing more effectively - all with improved efficiency. Just to be clear, this doesn’t have anything to do with prince and princess costumes, unless you have deep-seated urges, in which case you really need to go with the puffy sleeves.

What can Disney World teach healthcare providers about operating a practice, ASC, or hospital? A lot according to Patrick Jordan, a healthcare consultant for the Disney Institute, and I agree.

Disney wrote the book on consistently delivering positive experiences, securing repeat business, and earning exceptional references. And this is all despite big crowds, long waits, and otherworldly prices (sound familiar?).

According to Jordan, people are driven to return to and recommend the Disney brand in large part because of how their experience makes them feel.

Most healthcare providers invest heavily in acquiring new patients and almost nothing to keep them - even though it is just a fraction of the cost to do so. For example, the way in which a delayed appointment is handled can leave a patient feeling special or neglected. There is a lot of talk about transforming provider-centered healthcare to patient-centered healthcare. That mindset often makes the difference between a patient feeling special or neglected.

In healthcare, we use three components that Disney uses to consistently create a positive patient experience, and one from retail, to make a set of four:

1. Organizational Culture - Having the right people in the right jobs, working together with a common purpose with consistent management and training makes all the difference. For example, the person answering your phone and greeting patients should be selected because they are great with people; anyone can learn the tasks.

2. Brand Loyalty – People are loyal to you and recommend you because their experience exceeds their expectations and long-term relationships are nurtured at every touch point. This does not have to be hard. It’s often the simple things -greeting people immediately, setting realistic expectations, a smile, your full attention, or a call to see how they are doing- that build the experience and foster patient loyalty.

3. Stimulating Creativity – Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected people and places. When people are encouraged, and inspired to come up with ways to do a better job in a structured, collaborative environment, improvement is not only contagious, it is owned. People take care of things that they own. Your patients benefit in turn, from the additional care expressed, as a result of employee "ownership."

4. Centers of Influence –Certain people inspire the trust of others. Some achieve that trust by holding a publicized position, political office or by virtue of their social status, but special treatment builds a similar trust. An occasional hand-written note thanking them for their trust, or for a referral, goes a very long way.

So, how important is all of this process improvement, internal marketing, and patient experience stuff? Very important.

CMS plans to initiate a value-based purchasing system that begins to link payment to clinical care and patient experience scores in October 2012. Private payers are expected to follow suit.

Then there is the Internet and social media. One bad Tweet, blog entry, Facebook posting, or e-mail can potentially reach hundreds, even thousands of people. This is the age of consumerism and high deductibles. People are making their own decisions on where to go and whom to see. Accolades are nice, but one bad review exceeds the impact of 20 good ones.

Then, you might consider Norm Tabler, Jr., JD, senior vice president and general counsel at Indiana University Health, who said that happy patients are less likely to sue. Studies bear that out.

Process improvement to enhance patient experience is only one of the many tools that we use to make you more competitive, more profitable and to prepare you for the future of healthcare.

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