Customer Service in Healthcare: The New Paradigm

Grand Rapids, MI—As healthcare becomes more personalized and patients take a more proactive role in their care, the importance of customer service has become paramount, explained Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Co-Founder of Bridgeworks, Wayzata, MN, at the 14th annual National Organization of Rheumatology Managers Conference.

During her presentation, Ms Lancaster discussed the 3 main pillars of customer service that managers can use to improve the patient experience at their practices.

Physical Setting and First Impressions

Ms Lancaster suggested that practice managers walk in their patients’ shoes.

“Walk through your own office as if it is the first time you have ever been there,” she said. “See it through the eyes of the patient.”

Sit in the chairs, listen to the sounds, watch the television, try to get on the Internet, taste the coffee, sit in the examination room, and read the magazines. Consider whether the office looks neat. Does it smell nice? Is it welcoming? Are people greeted in a friendly manner?

Ms Lancaster suggested that managers follow the Golden Rule. “Treat each person as an individual,” she said. “Even if they are difficult.”

She also posed the question, “Can you provide any amenities?” and asked attendees to consider the following:

  • People may not need a cup of coffee or water, but the idea that you offered makes a huge difference.
  • Could you have an espresso machine or a small fridge with sparkling waters or a little basket of snacks?
  • Could you post the wireless password prominently and make it easy to use?
  • Can you make the television or magazines more appealing?
  • How about calming music or an open window? Maybe some fresh flowers?

She urged managers to consider patients’ first impressions as they approach the front desk. They should be greeted warmly and asked what they prefer to be called; this preference should be noted in their chart. “And don’t ask for their insurance card first!” Ms Lancaster emphasized.

It is also important to consider the patient’s comfort. “Pillows, warmed blankets, water to drink, changing the temperature in the room…these all make people feel cared for,” she said.

Ms Lancaster led a brainstorming session and asked managers what they had done to improve the patient experience in their own practices. One participant noticed that the billing window at her office was too visible from the waiting room. Since they could not change the configuration of the building, they provided a sense of privacy for patients with some well-placed large plants. These types of changes can make a huge difference in the overall patient experience.

Patient Communication and Advocacy

Ms Lancaster reminded attendees to keep their patients in the loop. For example, if the physician is running 10 minutes behind, let them know. “Everyone does better when they know what’s happening,” she said. And ask patients how they prefer to communicate, such as via text, a phone call, or e-mail.

More and more, when it comes to healthcare, patients are seeking information from sources they trust (most often online sources). Therefore, it is important that managers remain open to dialogue and try to provide additional resources that patients will respect.

“Curate peer-generated resources,” she said. “If you find a great story or piece of information, keep it on file using a tool like Pocket. When patients come to you with questions, you’ll have an arsenal of consumer-friendly stories to share.”

According to Ms Lancaster, the “quicker click” is now a reality, and patients expect to be able to connect with their providers easily. Avoid making phone calls to younger patients, but keep in mind that older patients often prefer this method of communication.

When communicating with older patients, ensure that their concerns are being addressed. “They may be doing what they are told and not asking questions,” she noted. “You need to fish for these.”

If your office uses a certain type of software, help patients with the technology, she suggested. Consider setting up a “demo desk” with a computer to show them how to log into their account, schedule appointments, or access their medical records.

Patients feel better when they know they have some control, so seek their input. Ask whether there is anything you can do to make their life easier when it comes to their rheumatology care, she advised.

Finally, it is important that managers do not forget their own staff members. In another brainstorming session, Ms Lancaster asked how a practice’s employees might go about learning new technologies in the workplace.

“They may be hesitant to try, or embarrassed if they don’t get it right away,” she noted. “Consider assigning tech mentors to do cross-generational mentoring on new systems.”

One participant shared how her practice set up a computer station that allowed staff members to learn the new electronic medical records system training program. The computer was left on throughout the day, so that employees could practice whenever they had time. This curated an environment in which individuals could practice at their own pace (after initial training). As a result, they felt less stressed about learning the new technology.

Taking Care of Yourself

Ms Lancaster said that the great irony is the fact that healthcare professionals often do not tend to their own health.

“You can’t help others get well if you are not well,” she said, explaining that stress, anxiety, and obesity are on the rise among healthcare professionals.

With the goal of encouraging healthy options, she asked attendees whether they would consider offering any of the following to their employees:

  • A comfortable, private room where they can eat, make a phone call, or just take a break
  • A healthy lunch or snack
  • Group walks, fitness challenges, or a gym membership
  • Classes covering topics such as career advancement, stress management, coping with ill and ailing family members, managing finances, etc

She also suggested that managers check in with their coworkers on a regular basis. If someone seems burned out, there may be a way to lighten the load.

“Finally, support each other,” Ms Lancaster said. “It’s easy to take an ‘every man for himself’ approach, but we need to have each other’s backs.”

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