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The Forgotten Step That Makes All the Difference to Patient Experience

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

a hand using a stethoscope to check large red stick figure while tiny doctor observesThere's one vital step in shaping a positive patient experience that is often forgotten or neglected. In healthcare marketing terms, it's the one step that can make or break everything else you do to put the patient first and grow your brand and reputation.

The nature of healthcare delivery is, more than ever before, focused on the patient and the patient experience. Hospitals and health systems, surveys tell us, put this goal at the top of their mission statements and marketing imperatives.

The all-important, but often-forgotten, follow-up step.

Forward-thinking doctors and medical practices, from solo practitioners to large medical groups, acknowledge the importance of putting "the patient first," for better outcomes, a lasting relationship and referrals.

In our work with hundreds of healthcare providers throughout the nation, we've found that progressive providers do more than give lip service to the concept of proactively influencing the patient experience. These are the hospitals and doctor practices that have a written plan, engage in regular training efforts, and actively use a continuous improvement process. Consider this little story from one of our colleagues:

"I'm not a doctor, but from everything I read in advance about a vasectomy, it's a safe and simple procedure. A surgeon would probably use other terms, but to my untrained perspective there's not much to it. In fact, that was my experience. Maybe less than 30 minutes and I was out the door, pleased with myself for being self-informed, having a personable urologist who explained everything, and a friendly staff that delivered just the right mix of professionalism, concern, support and encouragement.

"As instructed, I was taking it easy the next day—a Saturday, by the way—when the urologist called me at home to ask how I was doing. (Aside from a little discomfort, just fine, really.) The call only lasted a couple minutes during which time the doctor was conversational, friendly and instructive.

"What made the lasting impression, however, was the unexpected follow-up call. The doctor made the phone call himself, and he was genuinely concerned about me as a person who happened to be a patient. Before the follow-up phone call, I was pleased, and if anyone asked, I'd say the service was satisfactory. But after the phone call, I frequently tell people that this doctor, and my patient experience, was extraordinary. When was the last time your doctor called you at home to ask, 'How ya doing?' "

The rewards are win-win...for the patient, for the provider, for the staff and for their brand and reputation. But where good intentions and earnest efforts are undermined is where the plan stops when the sale is complete and the patient has left the building. A deliberate and systematic follow-up step needs to be part of the plan. Here's why.

The follow-up step—in whatever form or format—is highly:

  • Important: More than ever, people are involved in their health and healthcare decisions, and a follow-up (unexpected or not) is evidence of a patient-centered practice.
  • Effective: People may not notice if there's no follow-up. Generally, they don't expect it, so if it's missing, any positive experience with you tends to fade into the past. But when an unexpected follow-up occurs, it's impressive and reinforces their experience.
  • Engaging: A follow-up step connects with a patient to reinforce and build the relationship. It demonstrates a connection and a continuing concern. What's more, it reinforces patient instructions, encourages their compliance with medical instructions or directions.
  • Revealing: A follow-up opens communications in both directions, and providers can discover positive and negative aspects of the relationship. It's a moment to clarify instructions, answer questions or objections, reveal program strengths and weaknesses.
  • Differentiating: It's a powerful point of differentiation and branding. It puts you ahead of the competition, especially when—by common stereotype—they are too busy to "care." The patient often expects that healthcare delivery is a rushed process to get in, do the paperwork, get 5 minutes with the doctor and then be gone. (There are 27 more people behind you...move along please.) For those providers who work hard to break the negative expectations with a positive patient experience, the simple follow-up step is powerfully different than every other competitor.
  • Inexpensive: Most follow-up steps are relatively simple and don't have a big price tag attached. Retaining a patient is less expensive than acquiring a new "customer." And while they may require an investment of time and effort there is a strong Return-on-Investment attached. Satisfied patients return, they refer and they are bonded to the practice through an established relationship.

Make FOLLOW-UP a specific step in the plan.

A patient-centered practice and a positive patient experience happens by design, not simply because you hire nice people. Your Customer Service Plan (or whatever name you give it) needs to be a written policy and procedure. Include a deliberate and specific "after action" step that follows the transaction or beyond the service.

The follow-up is the often-forgotten step that makes all the difference in winning (or losing) a positive patient experience. You will find more about the importance of this step and how to put it to work in your hospital or medical practice in this related article.

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