Personalizing the Patient Experience: Thoughts From Paul Spiegelman, CEO of The Beryl Companies

Paul Spieglman, CEO of The Beryl Companies, has spent the last 20 years exploring the gaps in the healthcare continuum — moments when miscommunication, oversight and plain rudeness damage the patient experience. It's been his professional passion for years, but the impact of his work didn't become personal until last year, when his father sought treatment for his back pain.

Patient satisfaction gets personal

Mr. Spiegelman senior is 84 and has suffered from chronic back issues for a while. About a year ago, he decided to seek out one more physician who might give him an answer, one last-ditch effort before accepting the pain as part of life. As a self-proclaimed "connected consumer of healthcare," the younger Mr. Spiegelman called his friend, who works as the CEO of a major hospital in Los Angeles.

"I said, 'Do you know a guy?'" Mr. Spiegelman says. "My dad has seen a bunch of doctors, and nothing's working. He wants to see just one more." The CEO recommended his own orthopedic surgeon. Within a day, Mr. Spiegelman's father had an appointment — an unusual situation in an academic medical center, where patient access is always a concern. The physician spent an hour with the patient and eventually explained that physical therapy, not surgery, would be the best solution.

"Eventually the doctor told him there was nothing he could do to help, but my dad still loved the interaction with the physician," Mr. Spiegelman says. "He was friendly, he was honest and he explained surgery would be too risky."

Mr. Spiegelman senior walked away from the appointment feeling good. Someone he perceived as a true expert had given him an honest assessment of his choices — the most any patient can expect from a physician.

Driving away patients — before the physician encounter

Within a few months, Paul's mother had come down with her own back issues. She decided she wanted to see an orthopedic surgeon, and the obvious first choice was the physician who had treated her husband so well.

"My mom called the office and asked for the same assistant to this physician they had worked with before, who had been so kind and pleasant," Mr. Spiegelman says. "But the person who picked up the phone said the assistant wasn't available, and she was curt and cold." The new receptionist told Mrs. Spiegelman she would need an MRI before setting up an appointment. While this news was unexpected and somewhat frustrating, Mrs. Spiegelman had an MRI, sent the film to the physician's office and waited for a response.

Two weeks went by, then four. She didn't hear a thing. After calling several times and receiving vague brush-offs, she decided to visit a recommended physician at a competing hospital. She got an appointment right away, saw the physician on her first visit, went through surgery and experienced a great outcome. She never even saw the physician at the other office because her experience with the front office staff was so difficult.

"The way she was treated by the front office staff made her change completely where she had that surgery done," Mr. Spiegelman says. "The result doesn't so much impact the physician, but the hospital system lost a patient for life. The next time my mom decides that she needs care, she's going to go to the place she was treated well."

According to Mr. Spiegelman, experts estimate the lifetime value of a patient to a hospital is around $250,000. Physician referrals are still a major determinant of case volume, but consumer choice is becoming more influential. In light of this change, hospitals and health systems must focus more attention on those "gaps" in the healthcare continuum that damage the patient experience.

"It's no longer good enough to just build it and hope that they come," Mr. Spiegelman says. "The healthcare industry is becoming a service industry."

Perfecting the "touch points"
The most crucial touch points in the non-clinical healthcare setting have to do with access and communication, Mr. Spiegelman says. He says this means every patient should have the ability to easily schedule an appointment, and the front office staff should clearly communicate expectations about payment, treatment and the timing of the appointment.

Mr. Spiegelman gives the example of a friend who was diagnosed with colon cancer. She expected the treatment process to be difficult, but no one told her about a serious side effect of major surgery — an onset of severe clinical depression. "Some 25 to 30 percent of patients who have a major surgery experience clinical depression," Mr. Spiegelman says. "If she had been told that was a possibility, she wouldn't have been so shocked."

Mr. Spiegelman believes these problems could be fixed very easily with a little time and effort. "I just realized people aren't trained to communicate like this," he says. "They're not wired that way, but the economics are making it necessary now." He says even small touches — such as a concierge program that assists patients by taking care of errands during their hospital stay — can make a world of difference in influencing the patient experience.

One of Mr. Spiegelman's colleagues had the idea to create a "golden ticket" for patients that displays a number to call for anything they need. "When you become a patient at the hospital, someone on staff should say, 'Here's your golden ticket. Put it on your refrigerator, and if you need tickets to the next [university health system] football game, we'll get those for you," he says. "It's that kind of lifelong loyalty you should build as soon as a patient touches your brand."

Learn more about The Beryl Companies.

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