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Practice Managers | May/Jun '14

Improving the Patient Experience

How often do you listen—I mean really listen? I’m not talking about looking at someone while scanning a medical record, checking emails, texting, or reviewing your brain’s to-do list. I am talking about active listening: processing what you are hearing from the other person, feeling his or her emotions, and watching his or her body language. If you answered “NEVER,” get in line with the rest of us. The best marriage advice I ever received from a friend was simple: “Just shut up and listen, and when you get ready to say something, stop and listen harder.” Not only did this advice put me on the path to marital bliss, it changed the way I look at managing our medical business. Our physicians and surgeons see nearly 100,000 patient visits each year. That’s a lot of opportunities to listen. As a business person, I have spent a few decades trying to figure out what kind of experience our customers (patients) desire. As I was pondering the question, “What is it that provides patients with a high level of satisfaction?” I decided maybe we should ask these patients what they want so that I could get their direct feedback and maybe learn something new.

Several years ago, we started asking this question, and, interestingly enough, our patients have essentially given us the secret to creating an unsurpassed patient experience. So, how do we engage our patients in this conversation? The answer is however THEY want to engage with us. Maybe that is an email survey response, maybe a comment card, and, in many cases, direct email or phone calls from our patients. The key is to ask for their feedback. In each patient survey on our billing statements, office-based comment boxes, and practice website, we invite patients to email or call me directly to “rate our service.” And, most importantly, that feedback comes directly to me. With a lot of help from my team, we respond to each of these comments on a daily basis. We research problems and pass along positive and negative feedback to our physicians and staff. Everyone in our organization understands the importance of creating an unsurpassed patient experience, and this regular and transparent feedback from patients is a powerful management tool.

The Chair. Several years ago, I started receiving some negative feedback from our patients about the chairs in one of our largest offices. Complaints of discomfort, worn fabric, and general disrepair came to me as a shock; after all, we pride ourselves on the aesthetics of our facilities. I made it down to the lobby of this office, and lo and behold, the chairs were in terrible condition. As any seasoned manager would do, I started looking for someone to blame for this unforgiveable oversight. I approached our front desk staff, wondering why was I not informed of the state of these chairs, and their response was simple: “You never asked.” Wow, they were right, I never asked. I never asked the patients, the staff, anyone. I was to blame!

Lesson learned. Now, I ask everyone all the time, “How are we doing, will you rate our service, and what can we do better?” Sure, it’s great when we receive positive feedback, and we often do. In fact, we’ve won several Angie’s List Superior Service Awards and have hundreds of positive online reviews. But, I learn most from the negative feedback. It forces me to question what went wrong and how we can fix it so the same thing doesn’t happen again. Here is a sampling of what I have learned from our patient feedback. It is really simple, and it’s what we all want in an experience.


1. My time is valuable; don’t make me wait. Let’s face it, most of our practices perform elective eye surgery. With a few exceptions, it is a rare case when you have to go to the hospital to perform an emergency cataract surgery and lens replacement. Be on time; it is just that simple. If you can’t keep up, schedule fewer patients. Don’t punish your patients for your inefficiency.

2.Don’t try to “sell” me something. Sales 101, as Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It is about the patient, their needs, and their desired outcomes, not your features or benefits.

3.I don’t want to talk to a recording; I want a human being, and I want that human being to be empowered to solve my problem. Simply answer the phone, and empower your staff to resolve issues on the spot. Each Ritz Carlton staff member has a designated dollar amount they can simply write off as a gesture of customer service. Would you consider allowing your billing staff to discount a service for a patient who is not happy? Or, would you prefer to send the patient to collections over a $45 refraction fee and lose the patient and all their friends forever?

4. I want to see a smiling face that reassures me, and I want to have trust in you. Our patients are nervous. Sure, it’s just a cataract with some astigmatism. But, from the patient’s perspective, that means you are likely going to laser and cut out the middle of my eyeball then stick a foreign object in it that I have to live with the rest of my life—that is a big deal! And, by the way, if you can’t remember my wife’s name and you did her eyes 6 months ago, how can I have confidence that actually care about my vision?

5. If I have to pay out of pocket for something, let me know exactly how much up front. Make no apologies, much of what we do is not covered by Medicare or insurance. Let your patients know what is and is not covered so that they can make an informed decision without being surprised in front of their spouse or family member. Your competition knows your prices; don’t hide them, get them out up front and in the open. No surprises.

Bottom line, it is all about the patients. Ask them what they want and deliver it. It really is that simple.

James D. Dawes

James D. Dawes is the Chief Administrative Officer at Center For Sight in Sarasota, Florida. Mr. Dawes may be reached at (941) 480-2105;jdawes@centerforsight.net.