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Ask Denise Kennedy and she’ll tell you: healthcare is a lot like any other service. “When customers pay more for anything, regardless of what they’re buying, they expect more,” said the clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “They expect better quality, and they expect better service.”

Insurance companies are restructuring the way benefits work, increasing deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs. That means patients are increasingly paying more for their medical care, rather than insurers. And as this happens, it’s only logical that patients begin to look for the kinds of customer experiences they get in other industries.

“Doctors and clinicians look at medicine as a science. I believe they need to start seeing it as part of the hospitality industry,” said Ron Harman King, CEO of the digital healthcare marketing and management consulting firm Vanguard Communications. “Why can’t we borrow from other industries? Why shouldn’t [checking in at the doctor’s office] be more like checking into a hotel reception?”

What does a patient experience?

But as we move towards a more consumerized system, we need to think about exactly what it is that we’re making more consumer-friendly. We tend to think about “patient experience,” but the truth is that a patient’s journey is much longer than that few minutes spent in an exam room.

Think through the logistics involved that both lead up to and follow those few minutes. There’s scouring provider lists and review websites to find a doctor. Playing phone tag. Scheduling an appointment. Arriving fifteen minutes early to fill out the same old paperwork again. Waiting for the doctor, who’s running late. Unexpected charges and repeated calls from the billing department.

And that’s assuming that a patient is basically healthy.

The fact is that patient experience—the actual care patients receive from doctors—isn’t really the problem. It’s all that other stuff—let’s call it the “customer experience”—that most needs work.

Patients as customers

In 2016, Vanguard studied nearly 35,000 online patient reviews and found that 96% of patient complaints centered around customer service, not quality of care.

Healthcare organizations, focused on greater efficiency and cost control, can make the mistake of seeing extraordinary customer service as a luxury they can’t afford, Kennedy explained. “I teach this to my students to prepare them for the workforce,” she said. “If you’re hiring people, these things are not frills: you need to demonstrate to us that you’re going to perform at a level that’s going to help us communicate the brand, and live up to the brand.”

And good communication is really at the root of the customer experience. In that Vanguard study, 53% of those complaints, the largest category, were about poor communication. It’s often overlooked, even when healthcare organizations do focus on changes to the patient journey. To give just one example, some medical practices are Ubering their patients to the doctor’s office in an attempt to cut down on no-shows, but they’re not asking their patients why it’s tough to get to their appointments. (Evidence suggests that the primary reasons for missing an appointment are based on emotions or comprehension, not logistics.) Even a simple question about an appointment or medical concern requires a complicated call into the office—often with a significant period spent on hold.

Whether it’s customer satisfaction or use of information technology, healthcare has tended to lag behind, and then we learn from other industries.

— Denise Kennedy
Clinical Assistant Professor, Arizona State University

Bringing customer service to healthcare

“Whether it’s customer satisfaction or use of information technology, healthcare has tended to lag behind, and then we learn from other industries,” Kennedy said. Front-office staff members need to learn early on in their careers that “you set the expectations for the kind of experience a patient is going to get in the doctor’s office before they even set foot in the door.”

Beginning with that first phone call, we need to ensure that the process is seamless. Patients need to interact with live office staff during business hours, receive accurate appointment reminders (but not a barrage of them), and have a secure and convenient way to ask basic questions about their visits, physician instructions, and follow-up care.

And increasingly, we have the ability to influence a patient’s opinion before they ever pick up the phone. The satisfaction (or lack thereof) that people feel when they leave the doctor’s office is increasingly communicated online, and a recent survey found that 70% of Americans take those reviews into account when choosing a doctor. Says King, “The Internet has given patients a public voice to speak about their care.”