The Exchange

Why Customer Service Matters in the Healthcare Industry

The Exchange

By James Merlino, MD, Chief Experience Officer at Cleveland Clinic and President and Founder of the Association for Patient Experience

The importance of customer service is a given in business, where companies such as Zappos and Southwest Airlines (LUV) have built their success and reputations on the concept of delivering an outstanding customer experience. Yet traditionally, this philosophy unfortunately has not translated to healthcare, and more specifically, hospitals or health systems. This is especially unfortunate because hospital “customers” are very different than those in any other industry for one important reason—they don’t want to be there. The experience is scary, confusing, and they often feel as though no one understands them. Yet often these same patients are made to feel that because healthcare is a necessity rather than a luxury; they aren’t entitled to a superior patient experience. And this is probably the biggest mistake our industry makes.

In fact, the focus on the customer/patient should be the most important thing in healthcare—and it can be a real differentiator for hospitals. But for many hospitals, patient experience is about making and keeping patients happy, which misses the point completely because patient experience is also about a hospital’s philosophy about the delivery of care. Yet too many doctors spend hours improving their medical knowledge, without thinking about improving their approach to patient care.

Customers in any other industry get to vote with their wallets. If they don’t like the service at a restaurant, they don’t go back. If they have a bad experience ordering online from one company, they’ll just use another company the next time. The hospital industry hasn’t had that same type of pressure before, but things are changing, especially as we prepare for a new world of healthcare service outlined by the Affordable Care Act. The Medicare-required, 27- question Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey asks patients about such things as communication with doctors, communication with nurses, responsiveness of hospital staff, and communication about medicines. And the implications of that survey are financial and they are real: beginning this year, nearly $1 billion of Medicare reimbursements are contingent upon the results of the survey, as well as data on the quality of care publicly available online. That trend is expected to continue into the private sector as well.

Many in the healthcare industry are already recognizing the financial benefits of focusing on an excellent patient experience. According to a survey from Health Leaders, 36 percent of respondents—senior hospital leadership, doctors, and nurses— cite improving HCAHPS scores as the main goal of patient experience efforts.

But what’s in it for the patient? What does great customer service in a hospital actually look like? The answer really isn’t that different than for any other industry. It all boils down to two concepts: attention and communication. Yes, that probably seems incredibly simple, but the truth is that too many patients are going through sometimes life-changing medical procedures in hospitals without those two basic needs—and rights—being met.

Being in the hospital can be a scary time. It’s an unfamiliar environment where there are sometimes more questions than answers. Patients are woken up every few hours to have their vitals taken or be given medication—all with a stranger in the bed next to theirs (unless they’re one of the few who can afford a private room). In short, it’s an experience—from the doctors to nurses to food to medication. And it’s one that needs to be communicated, soup to nuts, before the patient ever steps through the door. As “paying customers”, it’s what we all deserve.

Whether there are 50 or 500 patients in a hospital, it is a patient’s right to feel as though he or she is the only one there. This means attention from doctors and nurses at all feasible times, time to understand what each medication treats and any possible side effects, and, most important, what to do after discharge.

Customer service in the healthcare industry is an idea whose time has come—and it deserves serious attention. Given the impending changes brought on by the Affordable Care Act, the patient experience is going to likely be more important to hospitals than ever before. Unfortunately, patients are already so disillusioned with the hospital system that they believe they shouldn’t expect the same superior customer service there that so many other companies proudly proclaim. But nothing could be further from the truth—customer service is something our patients should demand. It’s up to us to deliver it so we not only deliver the best possible care, but so that in return we are given something that every business covets: satisfied and repeat customers.

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