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Nine Free Ways to Quickly Engage Patients and Build Enduring Loyalty

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Red heart-shaped stress ball next to a stethoscope We begin with a true story...with an object lesson for medical practices, healthcare providers and practice administrators about emotionally engaging (and retaining) new patients.

Imagine for a moment that you've moved to a new neighborhood. You have two neighboring families...one on either side of your new home.

It quickly becomes apparent to the new residents (you) that one neighbor is far more neighborly than the other. The "good neighbor" goes out of their way to proactively introduce himself or herself, offers warm words of welcome, builds rapport with congenial conversation and extends an offer of assistance.

Their tone is sincere, the effort is appreciated, and there's a mutual willingness to build on this foundation of friendship. Over time, you and your family feel good about becoming better acquainted and being friends with the "good" next-door neighbors.

Contrast this with those other neighbors-you still don't know their name-who have done none of these things. They're probably just busy. At best, Mr. and Mrs. Something occasionally wave from a distance and indifferently go on with their daily living. They become invisible.

OK, our slice of life story is a bit simplistic. (It is, however, a true story.) But you can see the parallels between the experience of the new family in the neighborhood and the good or bad experience of a new patient getting acquainted with an unfamiliar medical practice.

The organizational culture of some physician practices is one of performing administrative functions for a passing parade of medical conditions. They don't deliberately try to be impersonal, but sometimes the patient can feel taken for granted. The medical/business process steps seem to push aside the human/personal touch. Function overpowers form.

The new neighbor/new patient analogy is a reminder that proactively reaching out-in relatively simple, easy and low cost ways-communicates a welcoming environment that can ignite a lasting connection. New patient or neighbor, the difference is in making an emotional connection.

Quickly Engage Patients and Build Enduring Loyalty

When a new patient appears at the doorstep of a medical practice, they are neither committed nor engaged. The marketing and branding effort is not finished; in fact, it's just beginning. The patient experience that follows-especially during their first visit-will determine if they become bonded to your practice, or if they opt to "shop" elsewhere in the future.

Winning the heart and mind of a new patient requires a clear plan with defined steps, responsibilities and accountability. The following ideas will fit nearly every office environment and can be used by everyone. What's more, there is virtually no cost to implementing any of these engagement and loyalty tips.

  • Have a written plan and live by it. Clearly define the standards of patient relations for your office. Without a commonly understood definition, your team has no roadmap for success. Use it daily.
  • Chart a course that goes the extra mile. What can the medical practice do that is above and beyond the required steps in the healthcare delivery process? Be responsive to patient needs, questions and expectations, and reward staff members who do more than the minimum.
  • Anticipate needs and exceed expectations. Beyond the medical help they're seeking, most patients do not have high expectations about the office experience. Raising the bar on patient expectations, even in relatively small ways, dramatically differentiates your practice from the competition. Do something unexpected.
  • Sincerity is a fundamental job requirement. Human nature quickly detects when comments and actions are sincere (or not). Genuine caring and concern about the patient as an individual should be an employment criteria.
  • The goal is trust; the super-goal is a trusting relationship. Most patients assume a basic perception of respect for physicians, surgeons and healthcare professionals. They are receptive to growing a trusting connection when the feeling is mutual. Notch-up the ladder of trust with understanding and respect. Without trust there is no relationship and no loyalty.
  • Be visible, approachable and responsive. Impenetrable castles and ivory towers are out of fashion for medical practice providers. Professional "distance" is not required to maintain professional respect (and trust).
  • Dialogue beats monologue ten to one. This skill requires practice and discipline. Begin by listening twice as hard, and resist the tempting trap of giving the answer before you truly understand the question.
  • Speak "Patient," not "Doctor." Truly effective communications requires finding the elusive balance between what is clinically correct and what is clearly understood. It is challenging to share information without "talking down" or "talking over their head." What's more, each patient begins with at a different level of awareness.
  • Two words: "Thank You." Just as fundamental as a front door greeting of welcome, it is easy and appropriate to say "thanks" to your "customer." (Not the "thanks-for-payment" at checkout.) Retail stores and other service providers say it. But when a healthcare provider sincerely says "Thank You," it is often unexpected and highly memorable for the patient. (Alternatively, a friend might say, "If you need anything, give us a call.") Moreover, the message signals that there has been a positive and mutual exchange between patient and physician.

An engaging and positive patient experience—one that is strong enough to inspire enduring loyalty—requires a degree of effort. Fortunately, this effort can, with consistent repetition, become an easily formed, proactive habit.

It is important to remember that the primary reason that patients leave a practice is not because they were offended or even dissatisfied. The most common reason is when patients feel neglected or treated with indifference.

For more on this topic, there's a related article here: The paradox of disappearing patients.

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