Patient Loyalty: How to Build and Maintain Relationships in the New Age of Healthcare
This week, I’m leaving my doctor’s office. I see a friendly, highly experienced nurse practitioner at my primary care physician’s office, and I trust her expertise. But I simply cannot put up with the lack of communication and scheduling issues I’ve dealt with at the office for any longer.
I’m sure patient loyalty is important to my doctor (although I’ve never even seen him), the nurse practitioner, and their team. But after weeks of leaving messages and getting put on hold, they haven’t proven that I’m a valuable patient. I’m walking away, and your patients can too—if you don’t make patient loyalty your top priority.
The Challenge of Maintaining Patient Loyalty
Truthfully, it’s tough to maintain brand loyalty in any industry in 2018. Marketers bombard consumers with advertisements for the latest and greatest products and services, and patients are way more informed about their options. New technologies and smartphone apps have changed our expectations across the board.
But while other industries constantly adjust strategies and technologies to retain consumers, healthcare has been slow to keep up. Long wait times are incredibly common, and too many practices and hospitals have not adjusted their processes for decades.
Keep in mind that just because patients keep coming back to your care, it doesn’t mean they are particularly loyal. In some cases, patients end up coming back to your practice or organization simply because their health insurance limits their options.
You should be prepared for the possibility that patients are tied to your practice but could leave at any time. As healthcare catches up to this retail consumer mentality, a few savvy healthcare marketers can catch your current patients when they have one foot out the door and they’re ready to make the switch.
What Patients Want and Need
My coworkers have made some amazing recommendations for primary care in my area. Their doctors’ offices go above and beyond to ensure patients have what they need and want. And it turns out that what most patients want isn’t actually unreasonable.
- Great care - Of course, this is something you strive to offer with any patient interaction, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Patients simply want to feel that you understand their struggles and their lives outside of the office and see the whole patient, rather than a symptom or illness.
- Convenience - In a recent study by NRC Health, 80% of patients listed “convenience factors” as a reason to switch healthcare providers. And this means much more than location alone.
- Ease of scheduling - I’ve been put through the wringer on this one: put on hold, rescheduled, told to leave a message. It’s the number one reason I’m making a switch, and I’m certainly not alone on this.
- Access to their doctor - Although it depends on where you practice, there’s a good possibility that many of your patients are busy from 9 to 5. That doesn’t mean doctors have to work around the clock, but keep in mind that your competitors may be extending hours, at least on some days, and drawing existing patients away.
- Access to their health records - Why should my own health information be tied up in your office? I deserve access to my basic medical information whenever I need it—and it turns out my friends and coworkers have found doctors with HIPAA compliant systems that make this possible.
Strategies for Improving Patient Loyalty
Improving patient loyalty should be a number one priority for you and your team. But it takes more than an impressive resume to keep modern patients around. Here’s how you can work to solidify your patient database.
1) Put yourself in a patient’s shoes
Think about each step a patient must take to schedule an appointment at your office. If you were a busy working mother or father, would you feel your time was valuable?
Listen to patient phone calls, or try calling the front desk yourself. Can existing patients quickly find time to meet with the doctor? Can your staff truly accommodate their needs? Is calling the office a difficult task—resulting in long hold times or drawn-out conversations that go nowhere?
2) Ask patients what they need
It’s easy to assume we know what the modern patient wants and needs. But it’s much better to challenge those assumptions and find out what patients really want.
It’s not too difficult to do: send out surveys to current patients about their experiences in the office, perhaps as an email right after they leave. Larger organizations can consult patient advisory groups as well—what’s most important is to remain open to the feedback you hear.
3) Reassess your systems and processes
We all know that technology has changed drastically in the past 20 years. But it’s changed nearly as much in just these last few. If you’re still using scheduling systems from 5 (or even just a couple) years ago, it may be time for an update.
And technology is only part of the issue. My team works with many practices and hospitals that have long, complicated patient scheduling and intake processes—when many of the steps are largely unnecessary. Again, put yourself in a patient’s shoes, and find out which processes are simply adding to wait times and bad experiences.
4) Invest in new technology
Do your research—there are so many new technologies available not just for doctors and nurses, but for the front desk too. And while some big investments in health technologies certainly impress the patients, even small changes (like adding the Spruce app as a means of patient communications) inspires confidence and patient loyalty.
5) Check-in with your patients
Finally, check in with your patients from time to time. This responsibility used to fall solely on the patient’s shoulders. But today’s patients are busy and a bit distracted; it’s easy to lose them if a competitor’s advertisement catches their eye at just the right time. (I’m on the lookout right now.)
Ask how your patients are doing, if they need anything, and when they’d like to schedule their next appointment. If anything, this could be enough to remind a patient on the verge of jumping ship (like me) to give your practice another shot.