Marketing Your Practice?
Then ensure you provide an exceptional patient experience.
By Michelle Collie, PT, DPT, MS
I think it’s safe to say that, from a consumer’s perspective, the health care industry is a little lacking when it comes to customer service. I’ve never heard a patient boast that their doctor’s staff greets them with a song and dance, à la Southwest Airlines. And have you ever heard of a practice that takes a page out of the Ritz-Carlton handbook and gives staff the green light to spend up to two thousand dollars on the spot to solve any patient complaint?
In health care, instead of talking about customer service, we talk about the “patient experience” or “patient satisfaction.” The patient experience includes every interaction a patient has with a practice, from the first phone call to the final goodbye. An exceptional patient experience not only makes a patient more likely to keep coming to you but can also turn them into raving fans— brand ambassadors and advocates, and free, loyal, and genuine marketers.
Creating the ultimate patient experience is not easy. It takes planning, systems, expectations, training, measuring, feedback, and especially time. If you want a patient to return to you or send others your way, you must spend time and energy on the entire patient experience. Follow these 10 steps to optimize the patient experience in your practice.
1. Have a clear mission. From a staff member’s first day on the job, establish clear rules on how they treat patients and colleagues. The essence of this can come from your practice’s purpose, mission, and core values. If one of your core values is “providing evidence-based care,” make sure your staff knows that this doesn’t just mean practicing based on the best clinical guidelines. It also means practicing based on the evidence that shows that treating people with compassion and empathy results in better clinical outcomes.1
2. Practice what you preach. Treat employees with dignity and respect. It’s simple but incredibly important: Clinic directors, owners, and leaders in a practice set the example of how to treat other employees and patients.
3. Rehearse professionalism and compassion. Consider hosting interactive workshops with administrative staff. Rehearse what should be done in challenging situations, such as when a patient is upset with their copayment, or if they call to cancel all of their appointments. Teach your staff how to go above and beyond in these situations. Remind them of the importance of active listening and body language, saying people’s names, and how to show people you care.
4. Don’t forget about your clinical staff. Clinicians are often focused on the value of the treatment they provide and might not immediately consider how the relationships they create with their patients can affect clinical outcomes. Remind clinical staff that listening and engaging with patients in the treatment plan and demonstrating empathy are essential. Give them some ideas for simple gestures that can mean a lot to patients, like calling them the evening after their initial evaluation to check on how they are doing. These behaviors strengthen the patient’s trust and relationship with the physical therapist.
5. Recognize great work. Recognize staff members who provide exceptional customer service. A handwritten note, a gift certificate, or recognition in a staff newsletter are all ways to show staff that you value the work they’re doing.
6. Consider the patient’s perspective. Review the patient’s journey from their perspective and make adjustments that improve their experience. Streamline paperwork so they don’t have as much to fill out, make booking appointments easier, expand available appointment times, offer iced tea in the middle of summer, play enjoyable music on your phone’s system—there are a number of ways to make the patient’s journey more enjoyable.
7. Phone etiquette. Remind your staff that it only takes seven seconds2 for someone to form a first impression, good or bad. A phone call is generally the first interaction a patient has with a practice, and the chance for us to make that first impression on a new patient. Have clear expectations and procedures for phone etiquette, from how to greet a patient, to how to address a complaint, to keeping conversations professional.
8. Be a secret shopper. Try calling your own practice. Does the person answering the phone say the practice’s name and their own name? Are they able to answer questions in a way that reflects your practice and culture? Do they sound welcoming? Check up on your practices so you can see if the skills you’re teaching are sinking in or if more work needs to be done.
9. Set goals, measure, analyze. If you don’t track that data, you’ll never know if you have a problem or are making an impact. What percentage of your new patients have been to your practice in the past? How many patients drop off the schedule? How many new patients come through friend and family referrals?
10. Listen and learn to your patients. Follow up with patients who do not return after the initial evaluation or who drop off the schedule within three visits—figure out why they stopped coming. Measure patient satisfaction via email, in the clinic or using direct mail. Use any method that works for you and your patients to track this information: questionnaires, surveys, patient engagement tools, outcome measures, the net promoter scores, etc. Analyze the data and find the best practices for your practice.
Physical therapy is a service-based business. We are here to serve the needs of our patients and our communities. The evidence supports that the patient experience and the level of customer service we provide is essential, not only for our patients’ clinical outcomes but also for our businesses to thrive. Keep the patient experience in mind every step of the way and watch how your practice takes off.
1 Bouck L. Physician empathy linked to better patient outcomes. Medscape. September 13, 2012.
2 Pitts A. You only have 7 seconds to make a strong first impression. Business Insider. April 2013.
Michelle Collie, PT, DPT, is the chair of the PPS PR and Marketing Committee and chief executive officer of Performance Physical Therapy in Rhode Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.