Treating Patients Like Valued Customers: An Achievable Goal

By Gail Scott

CRM Buyer – The Essential Guide for CRM System Purchasers

Sometimes, all a dissatisfied patient needs to hear is an apology. Sometimes, corrective action is required. Either way, healthcare staff can be trained to deal with patient complaints — if they don’t, patients will simply go elsewhere for treatment.

Healthcare organizations have long focused on improving customer service, but in today’s increasingly competitive healthcare environment, we are witnessing a renewed interest in, energy for and commitment to service excellence — and for good reason:Providing great care is the right thing to do. Everyone wants and expects to be treated with dignity and respect.

Patients vote with their feet. A healthcare study by TARP Worldwide points to the importance of personal treatment in retaining patients.

Healthcare Concerns

When patients were asked why they would change healthcare providers:

  • 60 percent cited concerns about quality
  • 40 percent cited dissatisfaction with personal treatment
  • 20 percent cited concerns about time issues


When patients were asked why they did change healthcare providers a different picture emerged:

  • 54 percent cited personal treatment
  • 23 percent cited time issues
  • 20 percent cited quality issues


Consumers have greater access to provider information. Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers (HCAHPS) is one example of an initiative providing greater transparency. In addition, more people are seeking this information than ever before.

People talk. Patients share negative experiences four times more than they talk about positive ones. That means you need to satisfy four patients for every one you disappoint.

Problems can escalate. Patients are more likely to bring malpractice actions against a system or physician if they are not satisfied with how they have been treated and handled.

Outcomes are better. Satisfied patients are more likely to be compliant with treatment regimes, thereby producing better results.

The work force is more satisfied. Data shows that happier patients create a safer and more positive healthcare workplace for all providers, thus reducing turnover, burnout and disgruntled employees, a critical issue in today’s healthcare environment.

Yet, as we strive for excellence, problems and challenges will occur, and how we respond to these opportunities is critical to our success as individuals and as organizations. Following are strategies excellent organizations use to make things right when things go wrong.

Raise Awareness

Change begins with awareness, which means every caregiver must understand why service recovery is so important. Most consumers suffer in silence. A statistic from National Consumer Research Organization speaks volumes:

  • Only 15 percent of consumers will return if they have a bad experience
  • 60 percent of consumers will return if they have a bad experience but can voice a complaint
  • 80 percent of consumers will return if they have a bad experience but the issue is resolved


What does this mean for us? It pays to listen. We want loyal customers, and studies have shown that many patients who rate us “excellent” on satisfaction surveys have actually had a problem that we have been able to resolve. So share this data with your employees who are on the front lines of care to convince them they make a difference when they work to resolve issues for patients.

Invite Complaints

Given the critical importance of “hearing” the customer, our goal is to invite rather than reduce complaints. Of course, we want to decrease the number of problems, and we want everyone to leave our organizations satisfied with the service and care they received. To make that happen, we need to solicit more feedback and get closer to customers while they are in our care. Patient rounding by nurses and senior leaders is a common way to understand the inpatient customer experience. Direct, open-ended questions can help us understand patients’ perceptions of processes such as admitting, scheduling, discharge, billing and their feelings about communication and interaction with caregivers.

Another popular technique is shadowing a patient through a specific process, which combines observing and interviewing and goes a long way toward understanding the customer’s point of view. Key data to collect at each step in the process is outlined in the diagram below.

Warning: Many staff are uncomfortable asking patients how they feel about their care, citing the following reasons: not my job; not my fault; not something I can easily fix; don’t want to make things worse; don’t like conflict; and don’t know how.

To overcome this reluctance help staff know what they can do and say in tough situations. Train them to use the “act with TACT” model to respond to common complaints:

T – Take ownership

A – Acknowledge and apologize

C – Correct and communicate

T – Thank, track, trend and learn

Collect common complaints systemwide and in every team. Provide staff scripts to respond in those situations. Be aware that staff members may sound stiff if they are uncomfortable, so practice the scripts with them until they feel secure.

Warning: In most instances, a sincere apology is what is needed and expected, but some staff find it hard to say “I’m sorry,” particularly when they feel they didn’t cause the problem. Help them understand they are apologizing on behalf of the organization; saying how sorry they are that the patient had a bad experience is not about fault or blame.

Clarify What Staff Can Do When an Apology Isn’t Enough

There are times when an apology isn’t sufficient, and successful organizations provide ways for staff to make amends on the spot. Coffee coupons, meal tickets, flowers, gas cards and items from the gift shop are popular giveaways.

It is important to convey that a gift or coupon is given in addition to rather than as a replacement for a sincere “I’m sorry.” And, if staff members have to jump through hoops to make things right, they won’t bother, so keep it simple.

Learn From Mistakes

Track, trend and learn from experience. By tracking complaints, comments and service recovery examples we can look for ways to improve. We certainly don’t want to repeat the same mistakes or put band-aid solutions on common problems.

Hold monthly meetings with key individuals to look at systems, policies and processes you can change or redesign based on customer feedback.

Be Proactive

Do everything you can to prevent problems and mistakes from happening in the first place. Often we know what can go wrong, so we need to act proactively.

Excellent healthcare organizations have thought through common problems such as wait times, staffing for off hours and scheduling and have put systems and people in place to address these issues beforehand with patients. Customers are more forgiving when they have been forewarned.

Celebrate Your Accomplishments

Finally, mistakes really are an opportunity to learn and grow. Collect the “oops” stories and use them to help people fine-tune service recovery skills. Make positive examples of staff who are able to turn things around.

Share the improvements you make throughout the organization and improve one step at a time. It isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight, but creating a work force that is centered on patient satisfaction and that views problems as opportunities for improvement is worth the investment.

© 2009 Healthcare Executive. All rights reserved.
© 2009 ECT News Network. All rights reserved.

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