A Better Practice: Customer Service Matters

A keystone of a successful practice is good customer service. Improving this component has become easier thanks to an array of technological advances.

All too often, medical professionals find themselves so overwhelmed with patient loads that they lose track of the administrative activities of their clinic. Ensuring quality care always comes first, but overlooking the other aspects of the “patient experience” may impact outcomes of both the health and economic variety.

Testing Patience

Imagine walking into a compact, windowless office with dull white walls. Fellow patients sit in a line of generic waiting room chairs. A coffee table is stacked with the proverbial old magazines and a lone bottle of instant hand sanitizer. The receptionist barely glances up as she points to the sign-in sheet on the counter. You fill in your name, appointment time, arrival time, and check the “yes” box next to “Are you a new patient?”

The next 15 minutes are spent filling out the ubiquitous insurance and medical history paperwork that you have encountered numerous times throughout your life. About 20 minutes after that, the medical assistant finally calls you back into an exam room. When she takes your blood pressure, you notice that the cuff is strapped on upside down, but you decide not to say anything since, after all, you are not the expert.

While certainly not a universal experience, worstcase scenarios such as this are not unusual in the U.S. healthcare system. Excessive waiting time, apathetic admins, and medical errors — even minor ones — may lead patients to seek another provider, launch a malpractice suit, or discontinue care altogether.

Foremost Grievances

Rudeness and indifference from both office staff and physicians comprised a combined 78.4% of patient complaints, according to a Vanguard Communications survey of over 3,600 negative online reviews of providers. That is more than triple the number of complaints about medical skills or errors, which made up 21.5% of the pie.

Although some may scoff at online reviews, they offer medical professionals unfiltered insight into the patient experience at their operation. This information can help identify both areas of improvement and areas of high achievement.

One school of thought encourages providers to think of patients as customers or “clients,” depending on one’s preference. People do not stop being consumers, nor do they drop their expectations of customer service, when it comes to their healthcare.

As a result, the model for providing medical care is evolving. New technology and policies are facilitating changes in dayto-day operations.

Digital Efficiency

Concerns about privacy with cloud data storage and Internet-based software make many providers squeamish. These worries are not unfounded, but the proliferation of digital data in healthcare is inevitable.

Reservations and appointments of all kinds can be made on the Internet, and people are coming to expect this service for healthcare as well. Scheduling appointments by phone can be tedious and become a barrier that stops some patients from seeking the care, especially if office staff is rude, fails to return calls, or places patients on an extended hold.

The relatively new online service, ZocDoc, allows patients to find providers of any specialty that are within their insurance network and view available appointment times. They can then easily book a time that works for them and have the option of filling out all insurance and medical history forms online in advance. ZocDoc emails multiple reminders to make sure patients remember their appointment.

After the visit, ZocDoc asks patients to send feedback and post a review about the experience. The service holds practices accountable for certain issues, such as cancelling or changing a patient’s appointment without adequate notice and waiting times of inordinate length.

Another new venture is One Medical Group — a system of primary care providers that claims to offer “clinical excellence with a modern approach” through “customer-centered design, smart application of technology, and a team of talented primary care providers who have the time and tools to make the right decisions.”

Patients can make same-day appointments that are guaranteed to start on time. Additionally, they can book appointments and renew prescriptions through an app or the company’s website, have their lab tests conducted on site, get treated for common medical issues through video visits, directly email their provider, and other convenient services.

One Medical Group operates on a membership business model that costs individuals $199 per year, and treatment is covered by most insurance providers. The growing success of the company supports the idea of treating patients as clients.

No Train, No Gain

Both ZocDoc and One Medical work to ensure that their employees provide the kind of patient interactions that will keep people coming back. Complaints about rude office staff can be forestalled by following two rules: Hire individuals with strong people skills and organizational abilities, and make sure to provide regular training and oversight.

It is nearly as important for staff to exercise good bedside manner as it is for providers. All sorts of personalities and attitudes come seeking medical care, and the person working at the front desk and answering phones needs to have the patience and empathy to make clients feel comfortable.

Once a staff of qualified employees is in place, they must receive regular training. A ZocDoc-like service will do no good if the administrative assistants do not know how to properly update appointment availability and process paperwork submitted online through the system.

Even traditional methods of communication require guidance. A script should be provided for phone calls both made and received on a variety of important topics, e.g., what to say and do when a distressed patient calls, how to respond to rude or uncooperative clients, and what information can and cannot be left on voice mail.

Small changes like these can yield large rewards. Though some may like the term “patient” better than “customer” or “client,” the goal of these groups is the same: Provide the best possible healthcare. Adaptation to new technology and sufficient training are key to achieving this noble ambition.

— Mapes is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the “Plan B” pill and overweight women in the August issue.

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