3 Steps You Can Take to Elevate the Patient Experience

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By Peter Decoteau

I often explain my job to clinic directors like this: “At the end of the day, my primary goal is to get more patients through your doors.”

This is, of course, a gross over-simplification of something that can be as broad, frustrating, and imprecise as marketing, but it holds true that, in many ways, the success of our marketing efforts comes down to whether we’re able to drive measurable increases in either general or targeted patient volume.

A marketer’s job doesn’t end when a patient walks through the door, though, and what happens next can have a significant impact on a clinic’s success. Emphasizing the “soft skills” of customer service and making sure your brand is well-represented can help you create a patient experience that strengthens word-of-mouth referrals, reputation, and patient retention. The good news is the investment is relatively low and the potential upside is huge!

Here are a number of steps you can take to elevate the patient experience inside and outside the clinic.

1. Go The Extra Mile To Make it Memorable and Unique

Physical therapy is likely not high on anyone’s list of things they want to do, and while a patient’s recovery is ultimately the most important factor in the success of their treatment, their feelings about the experience are often largely influenced not only by how their body feels, but how they personally feel. In this way, one of the biggest things that influence the patient experience is the way they interact with your people. Making the experience warm, engaging, and enjoyable can be the difference between a patient who heals and moves on and a patient who becomes a loyal advocate.

  • Talk to your team about “the first 5 and the last 5.” It should go without saying that first impressions and last impressions are crucial parts of any customer service experience, but what goes unsaid oftentimes goes overlooked. Coaching your staff on the importance of the first five minutes–showing enthusiasm, giving attention, asking questions, establishing expertise–can go a long way in promoting small actions that can make a big difference. Likewise, the final minutes of a patient’s experience are often the ones they remember best. These moments are great opportunities to help patients feel personally supported by offering a clear timeline and reasoning for their scope of treatment, and making sure they leave with business cards and feel comfortable contacting you directly with any questions.
  • Host “spirit days” and let your patients in on the fun. Encourage regular clinic theme days (for example, wear your favorite team’s gear for March Madness, wear your company gear for an anniversary) and make sure to promote the day on social media and on posters throughout the clinic so your patients know they are invited to participate.
  • Let them get to know the real you. Use empty wall space to hang staff bios that not only highlight your team’s education and clinical background, but also feature fun facts and other information that can spark conversation and help patients feel more connected to their PT. If you happen to have a digital screen in the room, you can easily insert them right into your playlist.
  • Show your commitment to the community. Along with feeling good and reinforcing team building, volunteerism and charity can have what’s called the “halo effect” in the eyes of patients. This means that, by extension of knowing about your clinic’s community service, customers will often attribute additional positive traits to your business.1 Host charity drives in the clinic, such as food drives around the holidays, coat drives, and fundraising for local charities, and encourage patients to help out the cause. You can take this a step further and invite patients out for a volunteer event with your staff, such as a team 5K.
  • Hold patient-driven contests. Patient engagement, both inside and outside of the clinic, can help them feel connected to you as people, not just PTs. Contests for things like pumpkin decorations and ugly holiday sweaters are a great way to drum up excitement in the clinic, and also an effective way to increase traffic and engagement on social media platforms by tallying votes through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

2. Make Sure the Patient Knows Where They Are

The title may sound glib, but I promise it’s not. Oftentimes, PTs treat in a clinic that operates under a company name, but a patient may only recognize the fact that they are seeing their specific therapist, “Matt Smith, PT.” Consistent branding, both visually and in messaging, increases awareness about your company name while also reinforcing the idea that there’s a whole team that makes the treatment possible.

This type of brand awareness attributes positive word-of-mouth to the clinic, not just the clinician, which creates more flexibility in terms of scheduling (patients not just looking to schedule with one particular therapist), in addition to enduring brand loyalty and reputation.

  • Have branded artwork and materials throughout the clinic. Make sure your logo and other graphic elements are visible throughout the clinic on things like inspirational posters, wall decals, brochures, and flyers.
  • Train staff on key messaging. Whether it’s your slogan, your mission or simple name repetition, consistency and frequency creates customer recall and can reinforce both your brand and your core messages.
  • Set up customizable digital screens in the waiting room or clinical space. A service like ScreenCloud offers an affordable way to update multiple digital playlists from a single computer in real time, which means you can pair your visuals and messaging in a compelling format that draws attention and is easily customizable.
  • Give gifts that promote your brand. Popular items include branded shopping tote bags (especially timely considering new bag laws in states across the U.S.) and t-shirts or gym shirts that feature your logo prominently.

3. Don’t Get Defensive, Get Responsive!

We’ve all gotten them: negative reviews that seem way off base and feel like personal attacks. Still, despite our best efforts to create a positive experience for all patients, a single negative review can be harmful in ways that extend beyond just losing one patient.

Here are a few statistics that should serve as a wakeup call for any business not proactively engaging with customer reviews:

  • When customers are unhappy, there’s a 91% chance they won’t do business with a company again.2
  • Dissatisfied customers typically tell 9 to 15 other people about their experience; some tell 20 or more.2
  • 92% of consumers believe suggestions from friends and family more than advertising.3
  • 88% of consumers trust online reviews written by other consumers as much as they trust recommendations from personal contacts.3

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom when the inevitable bad review rolls in, though! Studies on the impact of responding to negative reviews indicate that quickly resolving a customer’s dissatisfaction can stem the chain of negative word-of-mouth and can even turn that person into a loyal customer. After a 2018 study, The Harvard Business Review published “How Customer Service Can Turn Angry Customers into Loyal Ones,” in which the publication emphasized speed, empathy, resolve, and personal touch as key factors in turning a negative customer experience into a potential net positive.4 At the end of the day, most unhappy patients want to know that they’ve been heard, and that the company cares enough to put in the effort to correct the perceived problem. 


1Chernev A. You Can Taste the Benevolence. https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/you-can-taste-the-benevolence. Published December 7, 2015.

2Thomas A. The Secret Ratio That Proves Why Customer Reviews Are So Important. https://www.inc.com/andrew-thomas/the-hidden-ratio-that-could-make-or-break-your-company.html. Published February 26, 2018.

3Warren M. Word of Mouth Marketing in 2020: Effective Strategies Examples. https://www.bigcommerce.com/blog/word-of-mouth-marketing/#word-of-mouth-marketing-statistics. Accessed January 10, 2020.

4Huang W, Mitchell J, Dibner C, Ruttenberg A, Tripp A. How Customer Service Can Turn Angry Customers into Loyal Ones. https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-customer-service-can-turn-angry-customers-into-loyal-ones. Published July 31, 2018.

Peter Decoteau

Peter Decoteau is the Director of Marketing at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers (PTSMC), Connecticut’s largest private practice physical therapy company. He can be reached at peter.decoteau@ptsmc.com.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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