Quint Studer: Community Hospitals Must Lead With Experience, Close With Compassion

As the healthcare industry enters an era of accountable, patient-first care, many hospitals are beginning to focus on patient experience. As a part of this, they are placing great emphasis on conveying compassion. While this can be a great strategy for large urban hospitals and academic medical centers — organizations typically viewed as highly advanced and technically competent, but perhaps a bit impersonal — it could prove a miscalculation for smaller organizations.

Leading with experience, technical capabilities

Several years ago a 200-bed hospital engaged Studer Group to help improve its patient experience. Essentially, the hospital was concerned with "showing patients it cared," explains founder Quint Studer. To kick off its efforts, Studer Group tapped Gallup to poll the hospital's patients. The findings surprised everyone: The patients already knew the hospital and its staff cared about them — but they weren't necessarily sure the team knew what it was doing.

This is a good lesson for smaller, community-based hospitals, says Mr. Studer. Physicians and staff need to "lead" with their education and skills in order to gain patient trust. This is because while larger hospitals are often assumed to have the most highly trained and experienced medical staffs and access to cutting-edge technology, the same doesn't hold true for smaller facilities.

"Many smaller facilities do have tremendously skilled healthcare professionals and high-tech capabilities, but patients don't always know that," says Mr. Studer. "They assume they'll be better off at a larger hospital when that might not be the case. You need to educate them on the experience, skills and technology you do have."

"In a community hospital, you lead with skill, follow with technology and close with compassion," he summarizes. "In larger facilities, you go the opposite route."

So how do you lead with skill? Each physician or technician should be trained to introduce themselves to patients in a way that provides an overview of their professional background. This introduction includes a discussion of the physician or technician's education, relevant certifications and skills and years of experience.

"Patients might know the physician from little league, but that doesn't mean they know his or her experience or level of competency," Mr. Studer says.

Combating out-migration

Like all healthcare organizations, community hospitals face a challenging future. For smaller hospitals in particular, investment capital may be harder to come by.

"Depending on the size of the community, there may not seem to be enough population to create the level of volume needed to pay for new technologies and facility upgrades," says Mr. Studer. "This can make it tough to justify investing."

Combating this mindset is why community hospitals must work to make sure every patient stays in their own community, rather than choosing a larger facility that may be miles away.

"If you don't educate people in the community about your technology and expertise, they may opt out, self referring to another, bigger facility," says Mr. Studer. "When patients self-refer out of the community, their dollars go with them. Then, it's even harder for the community hospital to continue to upgrade and stay viable."

In an era of transparency, it's important to tell the "story" of your facility's advantages. This strategy can be aided by quantitative data. If a community hospital discovers it has great HCHAPS scores for pain management, for example, it can frame its marketing and external communications around this fact.

"Essentially, the hospital would continually hammer home the message 'We manage pain better than X, Y and X hospital, and here's the data to prove it," explains Mr. Studer.

A high performing community hospital may actually be able to draw patients away from larger, more urban communities. According to Mr. Studer, this has happened in own community, the area surrounding Pensacola, Fla. In fact, one community hospital has gained such a great reputation for excellent care and patient experience that people travel there from a 50 mile radius travel — despite the fact larger facilities may be closer.

Ensuring access

Community hospitals that aim to be the first line of care for patients must ensure they provide easy access to their services. In short, people must perceive them as being available when needed.  

It's a good idea for community hospitals to take a look at whether the people who depend on them are able to get care quickly and easily. If the answer is no, it's important that they do what's necessary to reduce emergency department wait times, offer more outpatient testing, increase access to physician offices and so forth.   

"When people are nervous about a symptom they're experiencing, the number one thing they look for is access," says Mr. Studer. "If another facility can see them more quickly, they'll leave the market. If they have a good experience there, you'll probably never see them again."

Once patients are in, of course, the other principles come into play.

"Give them great access, tell them about your skill set, and provide a great patient experience and excellent care," explains Mr. Studer. "If all of that occurs, it's likely patients will return to your hospital and tell other community members to as well."

Once patients feel comfortable with your competence they tend to be quite loyal, adds Mr. Studer.

"There's something special about community members caring for their own community," he says. "There's a built-in sense of compassion that is actually very powerful."

More Articles Featuring Quint Studer:

The Next Iteration of Hospital-Physician Alignment: Making Medicare Profitable
The Ladder of Employee Engagement: 5 Can't-Miss Steps for Hospital Leaders
Employee Engagement No Longer a "Soft" Science: 3 Steps to Cultivate More Committed Employees

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