Staying Solvent in a Consumer-Driven Culture

Photo of a post-it note on a bulletin board. Note lists the words "Support, Loyalty, Satisfaction, Assistance, Feedback, Communication, Trust." Letters from each word are circled to make the word "Patient."

Consumerism in health care can be defined in several different ways, but primarily involves people treating health care as if it were a retail business. The so-called “Amazon-ization” of health care places a premium on convenience and price transparency. One implication of this phenomenon is that patients who don’t find what they want in your practice may be quick to shop around for an alternative physician or practice. Here’s a look at how to cope, and thrive, in an increasingly consumer-driven health care environment.

Pursue helpful strategies

A key piece of the puzzle is customer service. It’s true that patients come to a physician to feel better. But to make sure they choose you to accomplish that goal (rather than choosing another physician or practice), you’ll need to maintain, or even improve, the quality of your customer service — including all aspects of the patient’s overall experience. You’ll want to:

Improve patient flow and cycle time. Patient flow concerns how quickly, efficiently and effectively your practice meets patient care demand. Your practice needs to focus on keeping the movement of patients into and out of the office as smooth and painless as possible. Analyze bottlenecks, staff appropriately, perform triage and prioritize services.

Leverage technology. Technology and patient service don’t have to contradict each other. It’s simply a matter of ensuring the technology doesn’t get between the physician and the patient. Use patient portals and make it easy for patients to fill out forms or make appointments. Some portals are easy to use, others not so much, so it’s important to test-run the software before purchase.

Personalize care. Patients want convenience, but they also want to know that you care about them as people. From the first interaction between the patient and your staff, empathy should be primary. When patients describe their symptoms, respond with sympathy and show your concern. Follow up with them after they exit the office visit as well.

Know your patients

Each medical practice’s patient mix is unique — for instance, a rural practice likely has a different patient mix than one located in a university town or a metropolitan area. In addition, a practice with a specialty or emphasis, such as geriatrics or sports medicine, will attract patients with specific characteristics and medical issues. For example, a younger crowd may want convenience and a quick in-and-out. That convenience may include a wider range of practice hours or weekend visits.

On the other hand, an older patient population may want a slower pace to their appointments. They may highly value a longer visit in which the physician slows down and focuses on them. Some patient populations may want a great deal of input into their care — while others may just want to be told what to do.

It’s important to ascertain what your patients want and need — and give it to them to the extent possible. To determine this, it’s wise to ask — perhaps by giving each patient a card on which to check boxes prioritizing what they value most. Choices could include Web-based appointments, appointments within 24 hours, or extended evening, early morning or weekend hours.

Understand the drawbacks

There are, of course, potential drawbacks to approaching health care as a consumer product. Physicians who begin to think of themselves as commodities may get into a downward spiral of increasingly lower profitability, focused simply on being cheaper and faster. But part of the consumer and customer service you’ll need to emphasize is that you’ll provide the highest level of patient care — while making it a positive overall experience for your patients.

Bedside manner matters

For some physicians, a sympathetic bedside manner comes easily. Others have to work on it a bit more. But bedside manner isn’t something confined to the relationship between physician and patient. It also can exist between patients, their families and the entire medical staff. One approach to improved bedside manner within your practice is to adopt the HEART method:

Hospitality. Patients are your guests. Give them the four-star treatment.

Empathy/Enthusiasm. Put yourself in the patient’s position. What would you want?

Attitude. Everybody who comes in contact with patients needs to have an appropriate attitude. Appreciate patients.

Respect. Everybody deserves your respect, but your patients in particular deserve it. One way to earn respect is to give respect — and patients will respond to it.

Timeline. Make staying on schedule a priority. Explain delays to your patients and apologize if necessary.

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