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7 Radical Ideas to Retain Patients (and Revenue) at a Doctor’s Office

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Two people sitting next to each other, one reading a book, the other using a laptopDoctor’s offices don’t always recognize when their routines and procedures work against their efforts to win new patients or retain current patients. The patient experience begins with an instant demerit. People who need an appointment are already dealing with a measure of stress. And medical providers should not make it difficult for patients to access the care they need.

Here are a couple of personal experiences—decidedly real-world—because they happened to me just last week.

A doctor’s office needs to be open and answer phone calls, particularly during the lunch hour. I tried calling during the lunch hour this week to make appointments, and they weren’t open. Some didn’t provide the option to leave a message.

Busy professionals like myself barely have time to go to the doctor, let alone having to make these calls and call back several times. The lunch break is a convenient and available time for many working people. It seems like an easy accommodation and patient-centric benefit for the office staff to simply stagger their lunchtime.

What’s worse, a few offices told me to call my insurance to verify coverage prior to an appointment. That’s a barrier to the appointment goal, plus it’s a further delay and added stress. (One office sent an email with detailed instructions about insurance verification.)

This D-I-Y insurance routine is new to me, and most providers are well aware of their insurance connections. Nevertheless, this was important enough for me to invest another 30 minutes (mostly “on hold”) to get past that issue. I wonder how many others would not have tried, hung up in frustration…and maybe their endangered their health.

The process might appeal to the office staff, but shifting the administrative burden is not a patient-helpful system. My guess is that nine out of 10 callers—if they get through at all—are on their way to a competitive practice, or maybe they would have gone months without an appointment.

Then there’s the business of the phantom imaging order. It should have been easy enough for a provider’s office to confirm some timely paperwork. But, to add to a patient’s stress level—long before the office visit—one office told me that they had sent an electronic order to an imaging center. But the facility said they didn’t have the order and couldn’t make an appointment without it. Another round of back-and-forth ensued…complete with finger pointing and denial. Both offices assured me that the other office was mistaken.

Eventually, the slow-but-sure resolution was for the physician’s office to send the paperwork to me via snail-mail. It was neither quick nor convenient. (I hope they recognize their broken electronic system and fix it for the sake of others.)

It’s bad customer service, not poor clinical care, that drives patients away…

Can you imagine any retail store closing its doors to the shopping public for 60 to 90 minutes? Or, what if a store needed to see the money in your wallet before you could shop? Would those routines build business…or bury it?

National studies agree that most patient complaints (over 90 percent) are about customer service issues. And among these, service issues are mainly about communications, long wait times, practice staff, and a small percent about billing matters. Doctor reviews are largely positive; it’s the service issues that damage reputation, referrals and new business development.

So picture this: Competition, and efforts to win new patients, are serious challenges. Yet, when someone—a new patient or an existing patient—calls to bring their business to your office—they run headlong into roadblocks and delays. Does that make sense? In the retail world, the business would be out of business before the dawn.

Here are several ways to win and retain patients and revenue. Fair warning: In an old-school, traditional practice model, these will sound like radical ideas. But, to be successful, today’s competition demands a radical departure from the old routine. Clear your mind, don’t close down for lunch, forget about “always-done-it-this-way, and serve the patient at the center of your practice:

  • Deliver easy access to care. Make appointments available within a day or two or even same-day.
  • Flex your office hours. Include late day, evening or Saturday options. Is there a time when you can deliver service when the competition is dark?
  • Evaluate online appointment systems. Software for calendars and booking is increasingly sophisticated. Patients can use it anytime (24/7), plus it automates reminders and confirmations.
  • Make a great, forever first impression. Find one special idea, personal trait or particular about each patient and use it in conversation. It’s an icebreaker that warms the heart.
  • Expand your digital handshake. Find patient-useful ways to expand your Internet presence, as well as finding greater use for text and email communications.
  • Don’t let anyone wait. Minimize delays and in-office waiting, maximize process steps, and eliminate any “unoccupied time.”
  • Design and use a follow-up and follow-through system. Consider an after-visit phone call, or a personal welcome note, or a check on medications or treatment. One extra touch point supports the relationship and patient-practice bonding.

Retain patients from the patients’ perspective…

It’s a sure bet that practices are losing business and new patient opportunity when they turn off their phone for an hour and a half lunchtime. A mid-day meal is a wonderful thing, but going dark when patients need appointments might lead to a permanent downsize. Conversely, the Harvard Business School tells us that increasing retention by only five percent lifts profits by over 25 percent. Which strategy has the best payoff?

I know it’s a drastic departure from tradition, but consider this…

If you give patients and customer service greater importance than a southwest strawberry seasonal salad, you successfully step ahead of many competitive practices, plus you retain patient goodwill and engagement.

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