How thinking of patients as customers can improve healthcare

For most companies, optimizing the customer’s experience has always been a prevailing goal.

Yet in healthcare, making patients happy traditionally has taken a backseat to making sure they receive high-quality clinical care. The industry has assumed that, if given a choice, patients will always opt for results over bedside manner. In reality, especially in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, healthcare patients prefer and need both.

Since the 1970s, healthcare has become much more competitive, and institutions have more aggressively pursued new patients. These strategies were foreign to healthcare’s traditional culture from the outset, leaving many professionals with a bad taste when it comes to the word “customer.” After all, caring for the sick and injured is a sacred practice.

That deep-seated and surprisingly emotional disdain for the word was partly fueled by the growth of for-profit systems. When these new companies sprang up, they sparked serious concern among not-for-profit providers who cherished their charitable missions.

To be fair, resistance to the word “customer” to some degree stems from the commercialization of the profession. It’s the same concern shared by other professional services organizations. For example, lawyers and accountants usually refer to the people who use their services as clients instead of customers or consumers.

That said, providers’ primary focus shouldn’t be a word but instead should be the way we think about the ones we serve.

An Opportunity to Care More

The traditional connotations that healthcare professionals associate with the word “customer” is a problem only if it prevents change. Instead, it should be an opportunity to provide even more effective and compassionate care to patients. Plenty of research by groups such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality show that improved experiences contribute significantly to the quality of patients’ care and outcomes.

Creating a better customer experience also provides a focal point around which organizations can shift thinking to a more progressive population health mindset. The origin of the word “customer” is the Latin “consuetudinem,” which means being accustomed to something or doing it repeatedly. In healthcare, that repetition and the trust that it builds are the basis for loyalty between patients and physicians.

Loyalty is interesting in the patient-physician dynamic. Traditionally, patients have been almost blindly faithful to physician providers. “Do what the doctor tells you” is a common attitude, especially among older patients. They tend to put physicians on pedestals because they expect them to cure all their problems in an almost godlike manner. But does that truly encourage the kind of relationship that best serves patients, providers and the system overall?

The idea of treating patients as customers changes that dynamic of doctor-as-commander. When patients are customers, they accept more control and responsibility in the relationship.

Today, most healthcare professionals agree that healthcare must move away from traditional, provider-centric practices to patient-centric approaches and attitudes. Viewing patients as customers supports the industry’s transformation in this direction.

How to Shift Viewpoints

It’s time for healthcare professionals to embrace the change from provider-first practices to customer-centric care. The following strategies can help providers interact with their patients in ways that make them feel like valued customers.

1. Start seeing through patients’ eyes.
Providers certainly don’t intentionally ignore their patients’ points of view. Yet they can become so focused on the task at hand that they forget the physical, emotional and spiritual impacts that procedures and practices have on patients and their family members.

To improve every aspect of customers’ care and to better understand what they are experiencing, try to have unscripted conversations with patients during rounding. Also, patient/family advisory councils, in-depth interviews and focus groups can highlight aspects of care from a receiver’s perspective instead of a provider’s.

2. Ask better questions more often.
What one patient wants might be exactly the opposite of what another patient needs, so individualized care requires engaging in dynamic conversations.

For instance, instead of asking customers whether they have any more questions, providers should ask what other concerns patients have that they can help with. The first is a closed-ended, yes-or-no question. The second expects and invites customers to ask whatever questions come to mind and reassures them that the provider will take the time to address their health and well-being holistically.

3. Make healthcare a relationship, not just a service.
Leading healthcare organizations appreciate the importance of improving patient experience across all facets of the care continuum. However, these efforts sometimes focus only on improving isolated incidents such as the greeting at a reception desk, hourly nurse rounding or discharge calls.

Research and experience have made it clear that the actual relationship between a care team and a customer must be built on compassionate, respectful, consistent interactions. These are far more important qualities than creating a “wow” moment in just one or a few discrete situations.

4. Make cost-effectiveness part of the better experience.
The more providers truly focus on patients’ experiences, the more they learn that patients are acutely concerned about the cost of care due to higher deductibles and co-pays. Therefore, providing optimal care at the lowest cost is essential to earning patients’ trust and loyalty.

Patients want and can sense when their providers are looking out for their best interests holistically and not just clinically. The ability to provide lower cost, patient-centric, community-focused care is essential to making customers feel truly valued.

Despite the industry’s natural aversion to the idea of catering to customers, forward-thinking healthcare organizations and their patients are already benefiting from the shift in perspective. Groups like Ascension Health in St. Louis, for example, focus on person-centered rather than patient-centered care and have even begun developing services outside of healthcare to provide more community-focused care.

Patients assume that the healthcare institutions they select will provide high-quality clinical care. In today’s consumer-driven marketplace, organizations that understand how services are provided and treat individuals as customers will have a clear advantage in emerging population health models.

Burl Stamp is the founder and president of Stamp & Chase, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve their customer experience, build brand loyalty, promote a culture of safety and increase employee engagement. Prior to launching Stamp & Chase, Burl served in several senior management roles in healthcare organizations across the country, including St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. His specialties include strategy development and implementation, leadership communication, customer experience assessment and enhancement, branding strategy and management, and employee engagement. To learn more about Stamp & Chase, follow along on the blog.

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