The Patient Experience, Marketing, and Your Practice Brand

November 18, 2020
Laurie Morgan

Laurie Morgan, MBA is a partner and senior consultant for Capko & Morgan. Her consulting focuses on practice management effectiveness and practice profitability. She is the author of the book People, Technology, Profit: Practical Ideas for a Happier, Healthier Practice Business

There’s no magic wand to immediately upgrade your administrative systems, but there are actions you can take.

When we talk marketing, we usually discuss proactive steps to attract patients—things like advertising, social media interactions, updating your website, encouraging reviews, and strengthening referral connections. But if we look at marketing more broadly and holistically, I think there’s an opportunity to get more bang for the buck on those efforts—and improve our businesses at the same time.

The legendary business guru Peter Drucker famously opined that marketing is the responsibility of every manager in an organization. His point was that marketing is about understanding the customer’s point of view. Everyone who comes in contact with a customer contributes (positively or negatively) to the customer experience and the business brand.

At first, this idea might seem like an imperfect fit for medicine. It’s undeniable that people become patients because of very specific medical needs, and how well those are met is your practice’s top priority—and your patients’ top priority, too. Other aspects of the patient experience should take a back seat—shouldn’t they?

When medical care is needed, it’s more important than almost anything else a patient can purchase. But this is not the only situation in which a person might need to rely on others to solve a crucial problem. Things can go wrong with the delivery of other essential services, and we can learn from those examples.

Internet service, for example, is something most businesses require. Maybe you’re fully pleased with yours—but then there’s a weird problem with your bill. It doesn’t take too many minutes of navigating an automated “assistant” or arguing with a rep about whether you actually were notified of a price increase to raise your blood pressure—and to make the excellent coverage and reliability of the network seem less impressive.

Or what about when you bring your car in for a repair and you’re upsold on extra work? Maybe you go ahead for safety’s sake, but then after you leave the shop, it bugs you that you weren’t quite clear on why the additional services or maintenance were needed. You’re glad to have your car back and working properly, yet also a bit bothered. Were you pressured into buying something you didn’t need?

These feelings of being unable to understand costs or why additional services are necessary can easily happen to your patients, too. They feelings can be amplified, even, because needing healthcare makes patients feel vulnerable. If you’re not actively counteracting the confusion, they can erode your patients trust.

I had a relevant experience of my own recently. I switched dental plans and needed to find a new dentist. An acquaintance referred me to a dentist who had a soothing and intelligent demeanor. From the start, though, I found the dentist’s office practices so inefficient and outmoded, a seed of doubt was sown in my mind. For example, it was all but impossible to get through to the office by phone, and nothing was done electronically—no portal, and even referrals and prescriptions were still hand-written. If you had a question or needed an appointment, you just had to wait and hope you got a call back—usually not until the evening or the next day. Most frustrating, the dentist’s website had a link for “appointment scheduling,” but when you clicked on the link, it displayed a page that said “call the office”—where, of course, no one would be available to answer your call.

On the strength of the referral, I went ahead—but when the dentist spoke with me about the importance of doing certain procedures in a “more modern” (more expensive) way, it gave me pause. Was this dentist—whose office practices were stuck in the 1990s—really offering me the most advanced technical option in 2020?

Curious, I dug into the dentist’s online reviews. I learned that other patients had reactions like mine. Most of the reviewers gave high ratings, but included complaints about office processes in the text. Some gave middling ratings, and explained that the dentist was lovely, but dealing with the office was a hassle.

When administrative issues affect your practice brand, it can be hard to know how to respond. There’s no magic wand to immediately upgrade your administrative systems, but there are actions you can take.

  • Promote what you have—not what you don’t. At the heart of many negative impressions is a mismatch between the actual patient experience and expectations. If you aren’t the most technologically advanced practice in town, focus on other (important) aspects of your practice culture in your promotions. And if you do things “old school” because you think that’s better for patients, tell them. For example, I met a physician who still keeps paper charts because she believes it better protects the privacy of her patients (many of whom are HIV patients). When she explains why she has no portal or electronic records, some patients are still disappointed—but they know what to expect and can see her decision in a context that shows the doctor truly cares.

  • Learn what patients really think. Many physicians and practice managers tell me they don’t pay attention to reviews. While this can be good for sanity, it’s useful to remember that critical reviews often focus on administrative issues. If you’re unsure whether patients are dissatisfied with office processes (or if you’re assuming everything’s fine without knowing for sure), reviews can help you get a more accurate read quickly. And a well-constructed patient survey can help you dig deeper.

  • Fix what you can fix. Sometimes, you can’t fix the actual problems—at least not completely. Billing confusion, for example, stems largely from insurance methods you had no hand in creating. You likely can do more to help patients know what to expect, however. Be sure your staff is trained to help patients estimate costs and know what comes next in the billing process. And be sure your written materials (e.g., on your website) explain insurance terms that often confuse your patients, such as what’s covered as a preventive service and what isn’t.

    Practices also often tell me that offering technology that patients want, like online bill pay and scheduling, is just too difficult. But practice management technology continues to improve, and your vendors may be able to help you transition more smoothly than you fear. (Consider how quickly most practices launched telemedicine in recent months—when many had assumed it was an insurmountable hurdle.) Check in regularly with your vendor contacts to learn what additional features you can offer to add convenience for patients and make your practice run better.

  • Promote the heck out of your improvements! When you make changes that address patient preferences, be aggressive about getting the word out. Remember that you probably aren’t reaching many people if it doesn’t feel as if you’re “over-communicating.” Don’t be afraid to feature “news” about administrative upgrades multiple times in your newsletter, on your website, on social media, and in person in your office.


About the Author

Laurie Morgan, MBA is a partner and senior consultant for Capko & Morgan. Her consulting focuses on practice management effectiveness and practice profitability. She is the author of the book People, Technology, Profit: Practical Ideas for a Happier, Healthier Practice business as well as the Management Rx series of e-books, and blogs at capko.com/blog.