Chapter 20: Treat your patients as valued customers – how to win their lifelong loyalty
|"I dont know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found out how to serve."
- Albert Schweitzer
For many doctors the idea of treating patients as customers is repugnant. For many doctors , " consumers " is a dirty word, partly because many doctors are still angry about the fact that their services have been included under the consumer protection act. Doctors regard themselves as being above traders and shopkeepers, because they feel that the doctor-patient relationship is special. However, rather than get upset at the idea of treating patients as customers, we should focus on how learning customer service skills can help us to improve the medical care we provide to our patients.
In the final analysis, the health care industry is the ultimate service industry, and we can learn from the billions of dollars the hospitality ( Taj Group of Hotels ) , leisure ( Walt Disney parks) and retail industries ( upmarket departmental stores) have invested in improving the services they offer to their customers. Its even possible for low-budget outfits to provide excellent quality customer care, as evidenced by the worldwide success of McDonalds, which offers excellent quality service to all its customers, with no bells and whistles. You may not like the food, but you have to admire their service ! Even when they are very busy, they will greet you with a smile.
The right attitude is to regard all your patients as discerning customers who expect , and demand a high-level of service. You need to realise that giving patients excellent service is critical to ensuring that your practice thrives. Customer service simply consists of listening to, understanding and responding to your customers needs . Patients today expect the same quality of service they get in a 5-star hotel. To meet these demands, many hospitals in the US teach their staff the importance of positive, service-oriented interactions with patients. You too can improve your practices customer service , right from the time a patient makes the first telephone call , to the actual visit itself , to any follow-up visits.
You first need to learn to improve your own patient-handling skills. While your medical treatment skills may be superb, unfortunately few of us are taught how to treat patients well. Remember, that patients care more about how much you care for him, rather than about your technical competence, and it is important to let your patients know that you do care about them as individuals. This is actually surprisingly easy to do, if you just remember the Golden Rule - treat your patients the way you would like to be treated ! While this may be easier said than done, if you make a conscious effort, its easy to learn the skills which patients often refer to as good bedside manners.
Its not enough to just improve your own skills - you need to improve those of your staff as well - remember, that they are your public face ! You then need to train your "front-office" staff - your receptionist, peon, clerk and nurse . Unfortunately, the key role these staff members play is undervalued by most doctors, with the result that even though the doctor may be very polite and professional, his staff isnt.
Remember, however, that your staff are the representatives of your practice -they are the ones your patients turn to for information regarding appointments, referrals, medication refills, and lab tests. For example, telephone calls are the lifeline of your practice. Yet, most receptionists, who serve as the link between the practice and its patients, are often untrained , and yet are expected to answer the phones, make appointments, and greet patients and answer their questions !
Its important to train your staff in basic customer-service skills. Here , for example, are some telephone policies and protocols your practice could consider adopting.
The First Law of Patient Service is : Patient Satisfaction = Perception - Expectations. If your patient perceives service at a certain level but expected something more or different, then he will be dissatisfied. Remember that both perception and expectation are states of mind, and you need to consider these if you want to keep your patients happy !
Learn from other doctors. Visit well-run patient-friendly clinics - for example, "upmarket" clinics which offer esthetic surgery, since their survival depends upon keeping their patient happy - they can teach you a lot ! A patient-friendly clinic must be designed for the patients convenience. Pamper your patients as much as possible ! For example, if you are a pediatrician , make sure you have enough clean, 6unbreakable toys for your children to play with, so they are happily entertained while waiting for you.Most patients want easy access to their doctor , and you can use modern technology to ensure that its easy for your patients to get in touch with you. We encourage our patients to access our website at www.DrMalpani.com, which has extensive information on the services we offer , and encourage them to stay in touch with us by email .
Remember that providing high-quality service is not expensive - and in fact, not providing quality service is much more expensive, since you will lose your patients to someone else who will. Most of it is applied common sense - treat your patients the way you would like your wife to be treated by her doctor ! If you treat all your patients as VIPs, not only will you enjoy your practise much more, you will also have lots more patients !
A good way of looking at patient satisfaction comes from the research done at Texas A&M University. The researchers described customers experiences of service quality in 5 dimensions, summarized with the acronym, "RATER"
Reliability: This is defined as "the ability to provide what was promised, dependably, and accurately."
Assurance: "The knowledge and courtesy of staff and their ability to convey trust and confidence."
Tangibles: "The physical facilities and equipment, and the appearance of personnel."
Empathy: "The degree of caring and individual attention provided to the customer."
Responsiveness: "The willingness to help customers, and to provide prompt service."
You can use this as a useful framework when trying to assess how satisfied your patients are with you.
Remember that patients prefer to be treated as special human beings, not just as a number. Here are the 10 Commandments for patient relations which you and your staff should live by.
I.The patient is never an interruption to your work - the patient is your work ! Everything else can wait !
II.Greet every patient with a friendly smile. Patients are people and they like friendly contact. They usually return it.
III.Call patients by name. Make a game of learning patients names, and see how many you can remember.
IV. Teach your staff members that for patients, all staff members are as important as the doctor !
V.Never argue with a patient. The patient is always right (in his/her own eyes). Be a good listener, agree with him/her where you can, and do what you can to make him/her happy.
VI.Never say, "I dont know." If you dont know the answer to a patients question, say, "Thats a good question. Let me find out for you."
VII.Remember that the patient pays your salary - treat him like your boss !
VIII. Choose positive words when speaking to a patient - this is a valuable habit that will help you become an effective communicator.
IX.Brighten every patients day. Do something that brings a little sunshine into each patients life, and soon youll discover that your own life is happier and brighter.
X.Always go the extra mile, and do just a little more than the patient expects you to do . For example, make it a habit to phone the patient after discharge from hospital, to ensure he is doing well. Exceeding patient expectations is the best way of keeping your patients happy - and keeping them your patients for life !
How do you know if your patients are satisfied with the care they receive at your clinic? The answer is simple - ask them! Patient satisfaction surveys are an easy tool you can use to answer this question , and they can help you identify ways of improving your practice - which translates into better care , happy patients - and a happier doctor!
To perform a formal patient satisfaction survey, the first step is to prepare a flow chart which follows the patient when he enters the clinic.
For example, one sequence might be:
Based on this flow chart of a patient visit, the satisfaction survey needs to measure two aspects at each point of the patient/clinic interaction. The first question should focus on how well the clinic met the patients expectation regarding the interaction. Thus one question should be: "How well did the receptionist meet your expectations?" The answer could be given on a scale of 1 to 5 (e.g., much better than expected, better than expected, as expected, worse than expected, much worse than expected, respectively). In addition, for each point of patient contact, a second set of questions should be asked: "How important is the receptionist to your overall satisfaction with your clinic visit? The answer could be given on a scale of 1 to 4 (e.g., very important, somewhat important, somewhat unimportant, not important at all, respectively). This information can then be analysed , to help you :
(1) identify which areas of your practise patients are not satisfied with( and therefore which need to be improved);
(2) and will also allow you to prioritise the improvements ( starting with the areas which patients feel are most important to them).
An easier way is to print a patient satisfaction survey card , and request each patient to fill out and hand this in at the time they leave. On the card, instruct the patient to mark a response of 1 to 4 (1 is strongly agree and 4 is strongly disagree) to statements such as the following:
Most doctors in India still think that they are doing their patients a favour by treating them. Its high time we changed our perspective , and treated patients as valuable customers ! Adopting a customer-oriented approach will help you to see things from your patients point of view , and become a better , more successful doctor. As you learn to see your patients as interesting, valuable people who are giving you the privilege to serve them, your own life will be immensely enriched by your patients !