Maintaining a Patient-Centered Customer Service Approach within a Healthcare Organization

How quality customer service can create a safety net for patient satisfaction

Happy doctor and patient discussing over reports in clinic

Cool Photos from Depositphotos

By José Domingos, President & CEO, Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC)

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When a patient arrives for a procedure-based visit, it can be disconcerting to be repeatedly asked to provide their name and date of birth or what medications they take. More so to be asked “which knee are we operating on?” or “what are we doing today?” Clinicians know these questions are tied to safety, but patients don’t. Context matters. Putting questions and information into a meaningful narrative matters. For patient experience, it can mean the difference between confusion and confidence, between fear and trust. While many industries have long ago taken a customer-first approach in their product and service offerings, the healthcare sector still has a long way to go in putting patients solidly at the center of care delivery.

Even more than a clinical outcome or an objective measure of quality, the way a clinician makes patients feel about their care is what leaves the most lasting impression. And that impression is an important driver of reputation leading to overall organizational success. 

The pandemic has challenged the task of providing patient-centered care by overworked, under-resourced, and exhausted care providers. This strain and the need to treat patients from a distance has totally redefined the patient-provider experience. 

Additionally, the Great Resignation has hit the healthcare industry hard. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020. Morning Consult, a survey research company, reports that nearly 1 in 5 healthcare workers has quit their job during the pandemic – limiting staff resources when they are most needed. In today’s challenging healthcare environment, it’s even more important to maintain the focus on true patient centeredness.

Customer service vs. patient experience

Healthcare organizations don’t generally use the language of customer service, but it’s of vital importance to them because of how it relates to patient experience. Patient experience is measured and used to evaluate overall performance of the organization and can result in financial reward or penalty. 

My perspective is that “customer service,” defined as the support you offer the people who use your services, and “patient experience,” defined as the experience of illness or injury and the related interactions with a healthcare organization, are two sides of the same coin. Using these definitions, customer service is what you are providing, and patient experience is how it is perceived. Together, customer service and patient experience exert a strong influence on the success of the organization.

Accreditation – and specifically the approach that we take at Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC) – has the potential to develop better customer service skills for healthcare teams, which will translate into a culture of problem-solving empowerment for staff and subsequent improvement in how patients perceive their experience with an organization.

Healthcare is the ultimate team-based activity with highly interdependent disciplines working in concert. That understanding of teamwork and collaboration is intimately related to the value of accreditation as my organization practices it, and to how we improve care together as an industry. However, that reality is not how most patients look at healthcare. And that’s because the idea of team-driven care is quite different from most of the stories that we tell about medicine.

There is no shortage of existing medical storytelling in our culture. For example, decades of medical tv shows have told stories centered on the opposite of team-based medicine, focusing instead on the lone hero. From Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D., to House and The Good Doctor, the consistent take-away is: the right provider may be a little quirky, but the best of them will have a tireless, super-human ability to problem solve, leading to an accurate diagnosis and a cure. 

If this is the expectation that a patient brings when they engage with healthcare in almost any setting, the opportunity to disappoint them, to fall short, to miss getting the best possible response to the patient satisfaction survey, looms very large. 

So, what to do? I suggest turning to an intentional customer service approach that grants the full healthcare team permission to solve problems creatively within a defined process. This is where accreditation is key. Standards related to policy and procedure are those process guidelines. Standards related to documentation exist to support and empower teams to do the right thing.

By providing clear direction for the full team on what to do, when to do it, and why it matters, organizations create a safety net for patient experience by creating an internal culture of customer service.

Experience sums up what care feels like

A customer service culture has enormous influence because a positive experience is powerful. It can overcome even a less-than-ideal outcome. In other words, when it comes to perception of experience, what matters is not necessarily what happened but how one thinks about what happened. 

Let’s take the example of a medical error. Current literature indicates consensus that disclosing medical mistakes, as challenging as that may be, is actually advantageous for patients, clinicians, and medical organizations. It reduces the number of medical malpractice suits and increases patient satisfaction. 

Think about that. An error is made and someone steps forward to explain it, own it, and apologize for it – and that makes all the difference. Even when something goes wrong, the value of thoughtful, appropriate steps taken to share and acknowledge the mistake, is greater than the information itself. So great that data tells us it does not negatively impact patient perception of their experience with the healthcare organization.

But again, it’s not just what you say, but the customer service story that defines how you say it. As a second example, let’s look at an ACHC accreditation survey. Let’s say an on-site surveyor identifies a deficiency. Now it can go one of two ways. Without a customer service mindset, if it’s poorly presented as a failure or a “ding,” there’s likelihood that it will be defensively received. There’s potential for damaged morale and frustration among the providers, and that will color the perception of the entire survey experience. 

On the other hand, if the deficiency is communicated in a respectful, peer-to-peer manner and placed in an educational context; if there’s a conversation, and the intent of the standard is made clear, it is much more likely to be accepted as an opportunity to make a good organization even better. That can transform demoralizing and defeating perceptions into excitement and engagement.

What customer service does, when it’s done right, is manage and build relationships by proactively delivering to the right customer, the right information, in the right way, at the right time.

Building patient trust through customer service

Beyond talking about a customer service culture, how do you bring it to life in a way that builds positive perception, and trust?

My recommendation is to follow the three “Cs” – Compassion, Communication and Connection.

Compassion – Compassion begins with a mindful presence to pay attention to those around us, even when the lure of multi-tasking is strong. As a healthcare worker, it can be easy to forget that the patient’s experience entering that space is inherently different. They are in a vulnerable position and a new setting. Using compassion will help frame patient interactions in a thoughtful, appropriate way.

Going back to the safety measure of asking patients to self-identify multiple times. From the patient’s perspective, it can be confusing, even annoying. She wonders, “why don’t they know who I am and why I’m here?” A simple solution is to explain to patients at the beginning of the encounter that they will hear these questions repeatedly and that it is done to add extra layers of protection for them. For the vulnerable person to feel trust, they need to feel recognized and understood. This simple act of contextualizing your process shows compassion and empathy.

Communication – It’s important to provide meaningful, credible information not only when it’s

needed but when it can be received. That might mean sharing the same information in different ways (orally and in writing, for example) and providing it more than once. Also keep in mind that patients don’t generally have the advantage of medical training or industry vocabulary.

Accreditation standards address this. Several focus on using language that is accessible to the intended audience. For example, when obtaining an informed consent, we encourage clinicians to have the patient repeat back what they are consenting to, to validate their understanding.

A person who is in an anxious state may understand your words but not truly comprehend the meaning without some time to process. Good communication reflects compassion.

Connection – Connection relates to authenticity in the relationship. Achieving a shared, mutual experience often requires listening first. Trust cannot be built if the clinician (or other healthcare staff member) is not fully present or fails to pay attention. 

You, too, can validate your own understanding by repeating something your patient has expressed. Connection demonstrates to customers that they matter. And that’s the feeling that drives satisfaction.

Using Accreditation

The goal of any healthcare organization should be to deliver a quality experience and compassionate interaction at every patient encounter. The COVID-19 pandemic and changing healthcare landscape have really challenged the ability of providers to focus on patient-centered care. Healthcare organizations should consider the big-picture possibility of using accreditation as a framework for developing an increasingly patient-centered, customer service approach within an organization.

About the author: José Domingos is President & CEO of the Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC), a nonprofit healthcare accrediting organization with over 35 years of experience promoting safe, quality patient care. ACHC develops solutions trusted by healthcare providers nationwide and is committed to offering exceptional, personalized service and a customized, collaborative accreditation experience tailored to individual needs. To reach José, email [email protected] or call 855.937.2242. For more information about ACHC, visit www.achc.org.

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