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Healthcare Consumerism: How to Avoid Being Left Behind

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Piggy bank using a stethoscope to listen to the pile of change on the floor[Series Installment] It seems to some observers that many hospitals and healthcare providers are not prepared for the next wave of consumerism. Contemporary studies among hospitals and health systems in the industry believe that patient behaviors and expectations are critical. But less than one-quarter of healthcare organizations have the means to gather and analyze meaningful patient data. And further, many hold patient experience as a priority…but without a clear mandate to achieve it.

Related: 9 Essential Steps to Improve Doctor Ratings Online

More than a decade ago, the early reform and re-invention of healthcare delivery was originally fueled by the run-up and launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among its various mandates, hospitals, medical groups and other providers were incentivized to improve the quality of care.

Today, the Internet is healthcare’s front window and an agent of consumer reform. Buyer preferences and hospital and provider selections are strongly influenced by online information, reviews, ratings and quality of service reports. And consumer demands have grown (and continue to grow) to higher levels of expectations—with the patient elevated to center stage.

Healthcare consumerism – slowly following the retail example…

To the credit of many fine institutions, healthcare providers continue to try to match the demands of its new type of consumer. For that matter, today’s consumer shopping and buying experience, —and the subsequent customer service satisfaction levels—have set the bar higher than ever. And, by some estimation, healthcare continues to lag in the delivery of a retail-like consumer experience. And by building bridges—establishing a connected bond—patients begin to feel like champions and loyal customers.

A hallmark of most retail loyalty schemes is a method of “buying” repeat participation. “When you earn so-many points, you are rewarded. Healthcare loyalty and patient satisfaction are reliant on personal and emotional connections. The retail definition of “repeat buying” doesn’t fit healthcare. So the chief ingredients of loyalty are less tangible and established through a relationship over a period of time. These include:

  • Trust
  • Social Proof
  • Engagement
  • Continuing Improvement

Cornerstones of effective consumer reform…

As consumerism in healthcare continues to evolve, three over-arching ideas have emerged:

  1. Redefining healthcare delivery in a way that genuinely empowers the patient and puts them in the center of service requires top-down management support. Without a mandate from the highest level of hospital or practice management, any goal to improve or enhance customer service throughout the organization will be an empty objective. (Fortunately, those situations that have enjoyed success are those that have been enthusiastically endorsed and supported by the highest level of management.
  2. Instituting a higher level of consumerism and patient satisfaction is imperative for business survival and success.
  3. Change is a continuous and generally healthy factor in healthcare delivery. Patients are the customers. They are the reason for the business and the source of the needs, wants and interests, needs to be closely understood and answered.

A doctor’s view and advice on healthcare consumerism and change…

But don’t take our word for it exclusively. To better understand how a “patient first” perspective completely unseats the traditional doctor-centric model, Doctor Rebecca Fox sat in the exam room “parent chair.” The occasion was a college physical for her daughter, and for the first time, she had the parent’s chair—and a patient/family unique perspective—in her own practice.

What does her office, and the patient experience, look like to others? She wrote about her experience and subsequently provided other doctors with this list of Five Easy Ways to Make Your Medical Practice More Patient FriendlyTo briefly paraphrase, her initial recommendations—that often escape the doctor’s attention—include:

  1. Doctors need to see—really see—their office, exam rooms and waiting area with the eyes of patients. She challenges others to ask if the space looks truly clean? It doesn’t take a glamorous office to deliver excellence in patient care. But a professional appearance and surroundings are vital.
  2. Doctors should listen carefully—as patients do—to how the staff speaks to and treats patients. As patients arrive and depart, is the staff polite, caring and respectful? Do they hear and understand what the patient is saying. Is the phone answered politely? Do patients feel a genuine respect?
  3. She challenges doctors to take an honest appraisal of the office décor. Doctors don’t always see the patient areas, or familiarity becomes habituation. A decorator, or even a few minor repairs, can deliver a clean, fresh and professional environment. (Oh… “Above all,” Dr. Fox writes, “restrain from taping paper signs to the front window and in the exam rooms.”
  4. Ask, How do people see your exam rooms? This area is often more function than fashion. But are the supplies available, and the room neat, clean and tidy?
  5. Consider how your staff is dressed. Individuals should be provided with guidelines, and the overall appearance must be professional and consistent with the environment. Practice logo shirts (supplied by the office) might be an option.

Improve satisfaction, experience and HCAHPS scores…

Admittedly, this list mainly addresses office and staff appearance. Although generally superficial in nature, they are an important slice of the patient experience. But there is an important level that goes deeper. In a Forbes.com article, author and customer service guru, Micah Solomon, listed eight ways to address the issue for hospitals, health systems, primary care providers and others. Here’s our a brief recap of his recommendations:

Don’t give off cues of “indifference and uncaring.” Solomon cites seemingly subtle but annoying institutional signals such as professionals “avoiding eye contact with ‘civilians.’ Med students hurrying self-importantly down the halls, patients ignored by nurses who haven’t yet clocked in, two radios playing at once from two administrative areas,” and several other signs of apathy or insensitivity.

Actively experience your care from a patient perspective. He writes: “Park where the patients park, tour the hospital [and observe] how many misaligned, out of date, confusing signs you have.” And challenge everyone who works with patients to test the “perception of a ‘reasonable delay’ between call button and response changes when you have a full bladder.

Engage employees to be thinking about purpose, not just function. “A particularly crucial aspect of great patient service is ensuring that every employee understands his or her underlying purpose and appreciates its importance.”

Everyone needs to learn and use the word sorry. Use role-playing and other training to use the word in resolving patient issues. “Get rid of the defensiveness that tends to mar the healthcare industry when confronted by a patient upset with what she perceives to be a service gaffe.”

Put everyone on the front lines. Teach all employees how to handle a patient or family complaint.

Strive to create a blame-free environment. If a patient service or satisfaction issue is the fault of the system, Solomon advises to “get to work fixing the system.” A blame-free system—one that resolves and/or prevents issues—can help build a great organizational culture.

Patient satisfaction is about systems, as well as smiles. Improvement, Solomon writes, isn’t about having doctors “smile harder.” Create or change systems. “For example, when Mayo Clinic overhauled their scheduling system, they employed industrial engineers using stopwatches to time wheelchairs between appointment locations in order to ensure correct scheduling algorithms.”

Look outside healthcare for improvement benchmarks. “One of the biggest obstacles to improving the patient experience in healthcare,” according to Micah Solomon, “is the industry’s insular nature. Healthcare providers compare themselves to each other and benchmark their customer service accordingly. And to do so is to set the bar too low. [Instead] it’s time to benchmark healthcare customer service against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your patients and their loved ones will do.”

Reform or Revolt: Next Generation of Healthcare Consumerism

The first rule of marketing, patient experience and delivering satisfaction is to deeply know and understand the audience. And, in many instances, it is audiences—plural. It’s vital to know exactly how the people you serve perceive you, your staff and the overall experience. The systems that you create to serve these needs must actually connect to and address the people and issues.

For many organizations and individuals, consumerism in healthcare requires reinventing the delivery systems. “Passive patients” are fast disappearing. And future business success requires a major re-engineering of the healthcare delivery system.

Consumerism in healthcare delivery now demands the familiarity of a typical retail shopping experience. One where the “customer is king,” and unparalleled satisfaction is the standard, and the patient/consumer is now center-stage.

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