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Medical Practices Must Remember That Patients are Customers Too


As medical practices strive to provide great care to patients, customer service is sometimes overlooked.

We just returned from vacation - a leisurely seven days in a tropical climate.  Returning to snowy weather clocking in at 10 degrees below zero was … actually good.  I was ready to be done with vacation, as wonderful and enjoyable as it was.  Not only was I ready to give up the 400-square-foot room I shared for a week with my offspring, but I was also ready to get back to real life and apply some of the things I thought about during my time off. 

One thing I thought about seriously was the customer service we provide patients.  During our vacation, the staff could not have worked harder to make us happy.  There were friendly smiles and faces everywhere we went.  Servers insisted on picking up empty cups and plates for us so that we could enjoy our vacation.  People happily brought me everything from towels to ice cream.  They anticipated and graciously attended to every need. It was impressive, and it made me think about how much is lacking in the service we provide to our patients.

Our patients are not in some wonderful location enjoying relaxation. Instead, they are often scared, in pain, alone, or worried.  The exam rooms can be uncomfortable.  The waiting time can be long.  The cost is high.  And the people who provide service to patients generally work in very comfortable environments for good salaries.  We usually get to go home to our families every night and retain a significant amount of control over our professional lives.  Despite this, why is it so hard to provide the same level of service that someone finds at a hotel, at an amusement park, or on a cruise ship?

I believe part of the reason is simply that we have never considered healthcare to be a hospitality industry.  We historically don’t look for star-level designations of our greatness.  We exist to serve, yes, but on our terms, in our environment, in the way that we choose, not the way our customer (patient) necessarily needs or desires.   What we receive compensation for is very narrowly defined and restricts, in large part, providing the best care we can imagine and instead leads to providing what is pragmatically achievable. 

What if we treat our patients like our customers?  What if we look to their comfort and convenience and preferences as part of providing care to them?  What if we actually look like we enjoy our job and are happy to see our patients when they arrived?  What if we consider that it is a privilege and not a burden to provide them care?

Today, I was back at work trying to provide great clinical care and great customer service.  I’m not sure if it was coincidence but I had a headache by the end of the day.  It’s hard to combine both of these concepts although I sincerely hope compassion and empathy are obvious to my patients. 

I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment of my own.  I paid close attention to the good parts of my visit - my doctor saw me early when I arrived early; the medical assistant tried to make me comfortable with some small talk.  I also saw some not so good parts - I had to wait several minutes for the receptionist to acknowledge me, and it was clear that whatever she was doing on the computer was more important than I was.  Another problem: I don’t think my doctor really heard my concern despite saying it twice in “doctor language.” 

So, my goal as I transition from vacation brain to work brain this week is to try to recreate a resort-level experience for my patients that hopefully combines exceptional patient care and customer service. 

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