Practices Can Always Improve Upon Patient Relations

January 19, 2017

Providing excellent customer service isn't rocket science and yet, as this editor has seen, it seems to not be a priority for many organizations.

Welcome to Editor's Corner. Here, the editors of Physicians Practice will share their thoughts on the happenings in healthcare and look at the industry from a broader viewpoint.

 

Patient relations month couldn't have come at a better time for yours truly.

This month at Physicians Practice, we're publishing several stories on how physicians and practice managers can improve the patient experience. We felt it was an important topic to start the New Year, as it should be on every practice's to-do list for 2017. You may think your practice is the best at providing customer service to your patients, but let's be honest, there is always room for improvement in this area. It's also an issue of increasing importance thanks to the rise of high-deductible health plans.

As a patient, I've recently begun to feel the effect of the high-deductible health plan. There is nothing quite like staring down an $8,000 bill because you and you wife were told to get some important genetic blood test that would "definitely be covered" by insurance. There is also nothing like having three different organizations - the practice, the insurer, and the company that administers the test - tell you three different things with regards to that $8,000 bill.

The good news is we don't owe half a year's worth of mortgage payments to pay for a genetic test. The real total is much lower than the $8,000 on the bill.

The bad news is that the number $8,000 got thrown around at all for a simple blood test – I mean how many people are wise to the fact the fact they don't have to pay that much? Does the company that provides the test (I won't name names) hope someone will pay out that much?

It's also disappointing that we got three different answers. It speaks to the disjointedness of healthcare, something I understand as a journalist covering this industry. However, for people like my wife (who wanted to know how I could write about such a confusing industry), it was incredibly frustrating.

In today's healthcare environment, it's imperative that practices help patients understand why their bill is $200, $300 or more. Don’t rely on the insurance company, lab or anyone else. They look to you for answers. Most people got accustomed to $30 or $50 co-pays - sticker shock can lead to a lot of anger and frustration. For practices, walking patients through their bill has to be part of their service.

But it's not just money. It amazes me today that some organizations can just flat out stink at interacting with their customers. If you aren't providing a personal touch and give canned responses to a patient's problem, you get an “F” in patient relations. This goes for all businesses.

In July, I purchased a Groupon - it was a service that would take a photo of my choice and get it printed onto a large canvas. By September, I still hadn't received the canvas, the company that I bought it from promised it would come within weeks. It still hadn't come in November and again, the company kept pushing it back. They said they couldn't offer a refund, but only store credit for the voucher (obviously cheaper than the actual price of the product, making this a pretty hollow gesture).

A few weeks ago, I decided that six months had passed and by now, I could have painted my own canvas and had it look nearly as good as the photo we took (and I'm a lousy artist). It was time to take the issue to Groupon. I didn't expect much from the company providing the service, but I figured Groupon could save the day.

Boy was I wrong. All I got were canned responses from Groupon's customer service staff (through email – they don't want you to call them by phone it seems) who were clearly typing out what they had been trained to do. There was no personalization at all, nor did it seem they took the time to read my complaint as they kept offering up solutions that had already been attempted.

"Reach out to the business directly" (Well I did that and they offered no help.)

"We'll be happy to find another way to resolve this for you." (I heard this several times and never got one concrete method of resolving of the issue.)

It was these kinds of platitudes that I kept hearing over and over, through each email interaction. It drove me crazy. It was like I was talking to a computer, not a person. Forget the refund for a second. I can live without a refund, but as a customer, you want to know that the person dealing with your issue can at least understand why you are frustrated.

For all you physicians and practice owners out there, learn from Groupon's mistakes. Your patient may be upset about something unreasonable or minor, but it's your duty to understand why. If they are being abusive, clearly you don't have to sit there and take it. But if it hasn't gotten to that point, you should at least try and meet them half way. The worst thing you can do is give those canned responses or even worse, push back.

As one expert said to Steph Weber in a feature article on enhancing customer service, "[Patients] hate indifferent service worse than bad service and they abhor employees with an attitude."

This is not rocket science, but remember, it's the beginning of the year and we can always brush up on improving patient relations.

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna or leave a comment below.