Hospital and healthcare facilities are designed to provide expert-level care to their patients, but in recent years the healthcare industry has undergone a shift in priorities from strictly patient care to a more complete customer service experience.
Patient Care and Customer Service
In a 1997 article for Hospitals and Health Services Administration, Barry Eisenberg writes:
“Healthcare providers are evolving towards becoming a true customer-oriented industry, spurred by the removal of regulatory and economic barriers to competition. Providers who are seeking this orientation should examine the ingrained paternalistic attitudes towards patients. They should put customer service into their mission statements and corporate philosophies, clearly define their customers, empower their staffs, develop a system to handle complaints and other customer comments, and ensure that their facilities are user-friendly” (Eisenberg, 1997).
He uses the comparison of a supermarket manager and the departments within a healthcare facility. Whereas a supermarket manager can immediately respond to a customer concern, often with immediate positive results, in a hospital there is more likely to be levels of protocol and policy to follow, frustrating the customer (as well as the hospital employees) and creating a negative customer experience.
The reason for the supermarket success, Eisenberg writes, is that “the manager’s behavior with respect to serving the customer’s needs is fundamental to his understanding of his job. The relationship between customer and employee is more ambiguous in healthcare environments. In the hospital, it was appropriate for the staff to obey policy, despite its trite nature in relation to this situation” (Eisenberg, 1997).
Luxury hotels do exactly the opposite. Staff are empowered to make on-the-spot decisions to satisfy guests.
So, the question is: What do patients – or in this case, customers – really want from their healthcare providers?
As other researchers point out, a hospital is not entirely similar to a more traditional customer-facing industry, such as a hotel or restaurant. Yet there can be some customer service techniques that work across industries, improving the patient’s experience and generating fierce client loyalty.
What Do Patients Want?
In the customer/patient experience dynamic during a hospital stay, the experience is very similar to that of a hotel: the customer is onsite for an extensive period of time and interactions with specialized staff are numerous and repeated. For instance, a patient may see the same nurse 10 or more times over a three-night stay, not dissimilar with a hotel concierge. Moreover, the guest/patient will expect different staff to help them, but the expectation of outcomes remains consistent. And while a patient may not know exactly what service to expect from a nurse, they will immediately make comparisons between the different staff. Consistent proficiency is vital. In both a hotel and a hospital, the guest is outside their comfort zone and, therefore, vulnerable. Within this dynamic, guests and patients have a similar need to be individually recognized and considered.
How can hospitals ensure that these core qualities are met? It can begin as simply as learning and using the patient’s name. Starting interactions positively is also key. Meaningful eye contact, a smile, and a strong cheerful greeting are excellent tools that let guests and patients alike know that you are there to serve them.
Writing for the Journal of Healthcare Management, Julie Howard explains that quality customer service programs can be evaluated according to several key metrics, including responsiveness (willingness to help), assurance (knowledge and courtesy of staff), empathy (caring, individualized attention), and tangibles (physical appearance of rooms and equipment) (Howard, 1999).
Think of the experience checking into a luxury resort. The level of personalized attention the staff provides, their willingness to answer questions, the speed with which they attend to your needs. Walking into a luxury resort often provides the personalized, loving attention that customers desire.
Compare that with checking into a hospital or healthcare facility. Going to the hospital is already for many a traumatic, scary experience, so the hospital that depersonalizes the experience and treats their patients in an anonymous, sterilized way might in many ways exacerbate the fear and discomfort for their patients.
Shifting focus to a more customer-service oriented approach could look a lot like walking into a luxury resort. Clients are greeted by name, attended to in a personalized manner, and their level of individual service is continued throughout their stay.
This approach benefits both the patients and hospital. For patients, an individualized approach can turn a frightening experience into one in which they feel safe and genuinely cared for. And for the hospital, there are significant financial benefits to retaining existing clients rather than constantly marketing for new patients.
Communication is Key
Aimee Doman notes that the key to great customer service, especially in the healthcare field, comes down to higher-quality communication:
“The nurse has opportunities to educate patients on disease processes including providing them with reading materials and community resources and encouraging patients to ask questions. Furthermore, the nurse needs to actively listen to what the patient is saying as well as anticipate their needs. It is the follow-through of the nurse that helps establish and build rapport with the patients. If a patient trusts their nurse and realizes that the nurse respects them, they are more likely to be receptive to the nurse and the plan of care including unpleasant procedures or changes” (Doman, 2013).
Communication and follow-through are leading indicators of customer service success in any industry. If a hospital is able to effectively set expectations at the outside, and then consistently follows through on those expectations, the patients will receive both higher-quality care and a better consumer experience.
Most importantly, an increased focus on customer service can directly affect the quality of patient care. When healthcare professionals understand their patients on a personal level, they can better react to the patient’s needs, anticipate concerns, and more clearly understand how to treat the patient.
As Doman points out, nurses need to know more about their patients than “pneumonia in room 1001.” Knowing only this small set of information leads to treating illnesses, not treating people.
A shift toward more customer-service oriented treatment will have positive repercussions for the healthcare facility and the patients who enter their care. Most importantly, it will allow hospitals and healthcare professionals to do what they have always set out to do – provide the highest level of care to people who need them most.
Doman, Aimee. “Communication is customer service.” Colorado Nurse, vol. 113, no. 4, 2013, p. 16. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A353212472/AONE?u=fres85346&sid=AONE&xid=9c9b4bb5.
Eisenberg, Barry. “Customer service in healthcare: a new era.” Hospital & Health Services Administration, vol. 42, no. 1, Spring 1997, p. 17+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A19122717/AONE?u=fres85346&sid=AONE&xid=3e56fb72.
Hajikhani, Shadi et al. “The Relationship Between the Customer Relationship Management and Patients’ Loyalty to Hospitals.” Global journal of health science vol. 8,3 65-71. 25 Jun. 2015.
Hasin, M.A.A., Seeluangsawat, R. and Shareef, M.A. (2001), “Statistical measures of customer satisfaction for health care quality assurance: a case study”, International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 6-14. https://doi.org/10.1108/09526860110366214
Howard, Julie. “Hospital Customer Service in a Changing Healthcare World: Does It Matter?” Journal of Healthcare Management, vol. 44, no. 4, July 1999, p. 312. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A61834537/AONE?u=fres85346&sid=AONE&xid=a6870145.