As the New Health Economy forces physicians to become patient-centric, customer service moves to the forefront
In a rural area with few specialists, patients waiting to see an orthopedist often spend unnecessary time in the waiting room. They know the drill: take plenty of material to keep busy. A scan around the overflowing space shows people of all ages and disabilities hovering over smartphones, iPads, magazines and books, even knitting projects. New patient caregivers frequently shift their weight in the too-small, uncomfortable plastic seats, unaccustomed to the ordeal. Perusing the stack of clinic-provided reading material shows dated magazines with torn edges and worn binders.
At the one-hour mark, a middle-aged patient emerges from the door separating the labyrinth of exam rooms and offices from the waiting area, victoriously waving a shoulder sling in the air before tossing it into the trash on his way out. The audience provides a smattering of applause as he departs, uncertain if it’s a hurrah for an orthopedic problem solved or the end of the appointment.
At some point of the waiting game, patients usually weigh the option of leaving and perhaps rescheduling, but they know the co-pay was grabbed at check-in. They’re stuck. Besides, most have waited more than a month for the appointment.
Every few minutes, someone approaches the humorless receptionist with the same question: “How much longer?” The pat answer: “Soon.”
After finally being ushered to an exam room at the 1-hour, 40-minute mark, and waiting another 20 minutes after vitals are taken, the very rushed orthopedist races into the room, mumbling “Sorry for the wait,” to the 88-year-old patient seeking a knee replacement consultation. In less than five minutes, the physician exits the room, efficiently handing off the patient to a nurse.
“The doctor stays so busy,” remarks the nurse, shaking her head. “He sees 60 patients today, so he can leave by 2 p.m.” Why? No answer is given.
Fortunately, the Florida markets of Orlando and Tampa aren’t rural, though sparsely populated pockets linger between both major cities, and the lack of respectful attention is a shared sentiment among patients.
“Perhaps more than ever, physicians need to be focused not just on attracting more patients, but also on not losing the patients they have,” said Nick Hernandez, MBA, FACHE, CEO of ABISA LLC, a Florida-based healthcare consulting firm that specializes in solo and small group practice management. “National attention has been placed on patients as consumers, and that attention hasn’t gone unnoticed. Indeed, patients are educated healthcare consumers, and many are tired of being treated poorly.”
Aside from physician-specific interaction, Hernandez emphasized three areas of attention for practices, to prevent losing current patients:
Disrespectful Staff. “The correlation between respect and patient safety has been well-documented, but a disrespectful staff can also impact the health of your practice,” said Hernandez. “Whether it’s absent-mindedness or plain unprofessional behavior on behalf of your staff, these poor attitudes will lead to lost patients.No matter how small the staff, most practices could use a primer or refresher on customer service. Using words please, thank you, and you’re welcome can go a long way.”
Dreary and Dull Office Appearance. “There are many things your practice can do to overcome this without spending a lot of money on remodeling,” said Hernandez. “Does your staff straighten magazines and tidy up throughout the day? How old is your reading material in the lobby and waiting areas? It’s a good rule to never have magazines that are a year old.” (Nick, I can use the original ‘ton’ instead of ‘lot.’)
Hernandez noted other small changes to make a big difference.
“When’s the last time your lobby received a fresh coat of paint? If you have a small operation and don’t have janitorial service nightly, then on the days without service, have your receptionist run a vacuum through the lobby area at the end of the day.”
Office Delays. “Scores of data from patient satisfaction surveys show that patients are extremely frustrated when their appointment time is delayed significantly,” Hernandez pointed out. “While patient care is certainly not as programmed as an automated manufacturing line, many practices could run much more efficiently if they scrutinized the operational flow of the practice.”
Sometimes, common sense and good manners should prevail.
“As time-impacting issues arise during the day, communicate that to your patients,” he encouraged. “They’ll be much more forgiving if they’re aware of the schedule. Remember, it’s highly unlikely this appointment to your office is the only thing they have on their agenda for the day.”
Especially in the age of social media, word about poor service travels at lightning speed.
“Patients still tend to assess provider quality in terms of service and access,” said Hernandez. “It’s the wait time, the rude staff, and the inability to stick to a schedule that anger patients. The key is to not have patients leave the practice because of poor office policies or simple misunderstandings.”