Running a medical practice requires a lot. At least one doctor, support staff, a building, and—oh, yeah—patients.
When you first start your practice, the focus is going to be on attracting new patients while still providing top-notch patient care. But over time, this focus needs to shift. Once you have patients, it’s much more cost-effective to retain current patients than find new ones.
So, what can you do to make sure your patients stay loyal? Implementing a few, simple customer service techniques can save you time, improve your outcomes, and lower your liability.
I spoke with two experts in the field, both consultants who help doctors make their medical practices more effective and efficient to find out what they recommend to their clients.
Cornelius recommends a three-pronged approach to keeping patients happy:
- Service: Take a holistic approach to appointments
- People: Every employee is in customer service
- Physician: Great service starts at the top
Here’s how they break it all down:
1. Service: Take a holistic approach to appointments
How you treat people matters. To help make customer service a part of their culture, Cornelius recommended that one of his clients use what he calls an “AIDET program.” That stands for “Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, Thank You.”
For the strategy to work, each patient encounter must involve all five steps.
Step 1: Acknowledge the patient
Greet the patient with a warm hello. “Customer service really starts in the waiting room,” Stevens tells me. “And it should go through seeing the doctor and out through the door.”
Stevens recounts a recent visit to see an allergy doctor. After he waited 15 minutes for anyone to speak to him in the massive waiting room, a receptionist opened the screen and called out “Who are you here for?”
“I prefer to hear, ‘How are you doing?'” Stevens says. And I think most patients would agree.
A clinic Cornelius works with has a policy to always greet patients with a smile, a hello, and their name when possible. And they require a staff member to take patients where they’re going instead of pointing or giving directions.
None of this is rocket science—or medical school. But it does take a little thought and care.
Step 2: Introduce yourself
Finally, the nurse takes Stevens out of the waiting room, but never introduces herself. “She said, ‘Come, sit, wait right here,’ and then sprayed something up my nose without saying anything,” Stevens says.
Then, a man comes into the room and says, “Just sit back, this is going to be uncomfortable for a moment.” According to Stevens, the man then put a hose up his nose.
Again, no introduction. He found out later that this was the doctor. “How about a little camaraderie,” Stevens says. “How about a little pleasantry?”
Step 3: Duration estimate
Cornelius recommends telling patients how long it will be until the doctor sees them. “Doctors are very busy and don’t seem to understand why it’s not a good thing to have a patient wait more than 15 minutes to see them,” Cornelius says. “They want to see as many patients as they can. So they want to stack them up.”
He recommends limiting the staff’s ability to go into the database to cram in more patients.
Cornelius implemented a check-in system to keep patients informed about the wait time. “If the doctor is running late the receptionist would tell the patient how late the doctor is running,” Cornelius says. “Every 15 minutes, they’d go to the patient, they’d give an update, and offer to reschedule.”
Even without decreasing the average wait time at all, the clinic saw an improvement in patient satisfaction scores after implementing the check in.
4. Explanation of procedures
Don’t just stick hoses up noses. Give patients as much information as you can, as soon as you can. This includes telling them:
- What are you going to do?
- What are you hoping to learn?
- What are the outcomes that you expect/hope for?
- What symptoms do you have?
- What are the potential resolutions?
When you’re not talking, actively listen. Don’t let your mind wander or anticipate what the patient is going to say.
Before ending the visit, Cornelius recommends asking: “Is there anything else I can do for you? I have the time.”
Cornelius stresses that this is very difficult for people in healthcare to do. “They’re afraid if they say they have time, the patient’s going to pull out a long list of everything that’s wrong with them,” Cornelius says.
In reality, he assures me, the patient very rarely has anything more to discuss. “But they act so excited and surprised that I would say that because they understand how busy we are as doctors,” Cornelius says. “Wonderful things have come out of this.”
5. Say ‘thank you’
The patient has choices. Remember to thank them for choosing your practice.
2. People: Every employee is in customer service
When it comes to employees, the goal should be to “up their game,” Cornelius says. He recommends programs, initiatives, and incentives to help employees focus on their patients.
For example, one of his clients uses “on-the-spot” cards. (He even had someone dress up as a spotted dalmatian to introduce this idea to the employees.) Supervisors carry on-the-spot cards around. If they see an employee do something above-and-beyond, whether or not it’s their own employee, they give them an on-the-spot card. The card goes on their record, and they also get a small gift, such as a Starbucks gift card, and they are recognized at the monthly staff meeting.
Another way to make your people more effective is to give them the right tools. “I think in today’s world, tech is absolutely phenomenal for the patient experience,” Stevens says.
He loves EHRs for two reasons:
- It means less paperwork and waiting for patients. When you fill out an online form, it can automatically copy and paste the address from form to form. You show up at your appointment ready to see the doctor.
- The other thing about EHRs that Stevens loves is patient portals, where patients can schedule and reschedule appointments online, and the software will send appointment reminders automatically. Further, patient portals reduce unnecessary appointments, because patients can talk with a physician or physician’s assistant without having to come in.
3. Physician: Great service starts at the top
The most important part of all this, however, is to make sure the physicians buy in. “None of this will work if the physicians aren’t on board,” Cornelius says.
Stevens agrees. “It’s inherent in the culture,” he says. “The doctor is the one that sets the culture. And the doctor is the one that screws it up.”
I asked Cornelius how to get physicians on board. “We tie ’em up and beat the crap out of ’em,” Cornelius says, laughing.
Sometimes he explains to physicians he consults that protocol adherence is stronger when a patient likes the doctor. And that this is even more true with seniors.
Cornelius tells me about a particularly stubborn doctor: “His mindset was, ‘I’m an extremely good doctor. We don’t need marketing. I’m such a good doctor, I don’t have to worry about this stuff.’ Then he got an MBA. Once he got back, he came to me and said, ‘My gosh, I understand that marketing is important. But how I treat patients is equally important.'”
And if he has to get the big guns out, Cornelius will tell doctors that the research shows that a doctor who is liked by patients has lower malpractice claims.
But often, doctors already know they need help. “Even Tiger Woods, at the top of his game, best golfer in world. He had a coach,” Cornelius says.
Cornelius recounts one case:
“We had an oncologist, a very shy gentleman. Very good oncologist, but very shy. English was not his first language. Outcomes were not great. We did some training with him. Because he was so shy, he was coming across as not confident. With some training, he came across as much more confident. Firmer handshake, eye contact.”
His patient outcomes improved drastically once patients were confident that this doctor knew what he was doing.
“A lot of the newer doctors now are coming from other countries,” Cornelius says. “And cultures that are very quiet and shy.”
He coaches doctors on how to instill confidence and camaraderie by smiling, sitting down and relaxing for a moment with patients.
It’s not difficult to retain your patient base and improve your practice’s profitability and outcomes. It just takes a few small adjustments. And these minor tweaks can pay dividends.
To learn more about how to improve your practice, check out 3 Medical Practice KPIs You Should Be Monitoring, But Aren’t.
What customer service techniques have helped you become a better doctor? Let me know in the comments.