When you think of industries where exceptional customer service is critical, your mind might drift towards industries like hospitality, aviation, and maybe retail. Healthcare would hardly be the first industry to come to your mind.
But, the fact remains that at its core, healthcare is a customer service industry. While bustling clinics and emergency rooms don’t paint the perfect picture of customer service in our minds, it is pretty evident that customers (or patients in this case) are primarily dependent on the quality of care provided and the daily interaction between the staff and the patients. In that sense, every employee of a healthcare company, irrespective of whether they directly interact with patients, is potentially a customer service representative — one whose job is to ensure that patients receive the best care possible.
What does providing the best care mean?
According to James Merlino, MD, Chief Experience Officer at Cleveland Clinic, “Patients are made to feel that, because healthcare is a necessity rather than a luxury, they aren’t entitled to a superior patient experience. And this is probably the biggest mistake our industry makes.” He believes that to provide the best level of care, healthcare providers must exhibit:
- Care and empathy
- Efficiency and professionalism
- Accurate and timely information
- And a complete sense of trust and privacy.
While care and empathy, and efficiency and professionalism are fairly obvious, with the digitization of healthcare, access to accurate and timely information and patient confidentiality and data privacy are becoming increasingly important.
Cisco’s research shows that 70% of patients wanted the ability to connect with their healthcare providers over phone or email instantly. They felt that they could benefit from faster access to care, more convenient management of conditions, and improved access to experts.
Furthermore, according to a report by The Health Research Institute at PricewaterhouseCoopers, 56% of patients in American hospitals viewed the privacy and security of medical information as a key factor in choosing their healthcare provider.
The good news here is that organizations are increasingly paying attention to customer service across the healthcare ecosystem. Many healthcare providers have started a rapid move to digitization; some have even gone to the extent of appointing “Chief Experience Officers.” The bad news is that the healthcare industry has a long way to go. According to the Customer Operations Performance Center, customer service in hospitals, health insurance companies, and medical groups fares poorly compared to customer service in non-healthcare entities.
Why is providing good customer service in healthcare complicated?
There are largely two reasons why healthcare customer service is complicated:
Healthcare is complicated: Healthcare is complicated, and laypeople often don’t understand its complexities and rely entirely on doctors and physicians to make decisions for them.
Healthcare is often a Business-to-Business marketplace: According to The Keckley Report, less than 20% of healthcare transactions are done directly out-of-pocket by consumers. Most transactions are business deals between clinics and hospitals and other entities like medicine suppliers, medical device makers, and insurance providers, among others. Today, customer service in healthcare is more focused on satisfying the business transactions between trading partners in the supply chain than customer service involving patients.
Why customer service matters in healthcare now more than ever
While it is entirely plausible that hospitals have been focused on providing good B2B customer service, providing good customer service on the consumer side should be equally high on healthcare institutions’ priority list. The reasons for this are multifold:
Patients are now more aware than ever: With easy access to information, patients are now more aware than ever of their choices and costs regarding their doctor and hospital visits. This means that they are now treating healthcare like any other paid service. Whether it is with the doctors, the support staff, or a technical issue, an unhappy patient will take their business to a new clinic/hospital. The opposite is also true; a happy patient will come back for future visits and recommend the clinic/hospital in their social circles.
The internet (and social media) is becoming a patient’s new best friend: Review sites like Healthgrades, Vitals, ZocDoc, and RateMDs, provide free access for patients to look up information and read reviews and ratings about their doctors and facilities. Not just this, popular review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and Google My Business, which are not healthcare specific, also provide patients the opportunity to give feedback on their experiences. This means that when a new patient is looking for a doctor, they won’t just rely on word of mouth. It makes the entire internet a public source of information about a specific doctor or facility.
Strategies to improve healthcare customer service
Developing a patient-first mentality
It is essential to identify that customer service in healthcare is different from customer service in other industries. Aside from a few cases, most customers typically do not “want” to be there. Seeing the doctor or going to a hospital can be an intimidating experience. From the first point of contact with the front office staff to the administrative staff, the waiting room experience, the actual visits with the doctors and nurses, and the follow-up experience, everything plays a vital role in making the patient feel comfortable and at ease.
So it becomes essential for you to have a well-thought-out customer service plan for every touchpoint in the journey towards providing excellent customer service at your clinic/hospital.
The question becomes where to start, and the answer is: in staffing. Your hospital/clinic’s staffing plans and policies must ensure that all your employees understand that your patients are at the core of your business. A few musts to achieving that are:
Hire the right kind of people: You might have the most-skilled doctors and nurses in the industry, but to provide a consistent, high-quality healthcare experience, you need to ensure that all of your customer-facing employees display the same level of customer-centricity as your doctors and nurses — they need to exhibit similar levels of empathy and communicate as effectively. So make sure you check for these skills while hiring even for your front office and admin staff.
Train your employees in the right way: Start by conducting a ‘training needs analysis.’ This will help you identify the gaps in your processes and those in your employees’ skills and help you establish a goal for your training program.
Establish clear, measurable goals for every employee: This step is fairly obvious. Set actionable customer service goals for every team member specific to their function, but ensure that these goals are aligned with your main goal of becoming more patient-centric.
Observe your employees and how they interact with patients: Think of this as a critical evaluation phase for your employees. Observe how your offices fare in terms of customer service. Are they courteous? Are they able to respond to patients’ queries in a timely and accurate manner? Do they know what to do if they do not have answers to patients’ questions? This is vital information that can feed into your customer service training program to ensure that your employees are equipped to provide patients the best customer experience.
Collect feedback from your patients: The good, the bad, and the ugly: get your hands on as much customer feedback as possible and as quickly as you can either in person or via email. Collecting authentic feedback from your patients can give you valuable data and insights on how you are progressing on your quest to provide good customer service. If patients are struggling to book an appointment, that’s a place to begin. Or if you get to know that your patients are facing difficulties in tracking their follow-ups or having billing issues, that’s another pain point, you can quickly resolve.
Protect patients first: Developing a patient-first mentality also means protecting patients from invasions to their privacy. In the twenty-first century, cybersecurity should be right up there on your priority list. Ensure that your entire tech stack is compliant with the established standards of data protection as well as those specific to your region. Train your employees on cybersecurity processes regularly. Put a crisis communication protocol in place and ensure every employee knows what to do if patient data has been compromised.
Digital transformation for an end-to-end customer service experience
While cliched, this needs to be repeated and reinforced. Patients expect more than just treatment from their healthcare provider; they expect care. The end-to-end customer experience includes many digital touchpoints, and each of these digital touchpoints plays a crucial role in healthcare customer service.
Appointment scheduling: This is typically the first touchpoint a patient has with a hospital/clinic. Here, you would typically collect basic information about a patient, and their healthcare needs to book an appointment. As a healthcare provider, you can make this experience seamless by making your data collection process more intuitive, minimizing wait times to chat/talk with an agent, having an accurate and easy to use appointment scheduling software on your website, and providing instant appointment confirmation emails/text messages. Furthermore, you can also put in place a system to send reminder emails and text messages before appointments.
Appointment check-ins/walk-in visits: The patient check-in is usually the first in-person interaction your customers have with your hospital staff. In case of scheduled appointments, your front office and administrative staff must have access to all the necessary information provided by the patient while booking the appointment, i.e., access to a common system of patient records. This background information will minimize wait times and help patients get the care they need on time. In the case of walk-ins, data collection must be made as seamless as possible. Leverage technology — using connected devices to log in quickly and access to past medical records, collect all necessary information from the patient and feed them into the medical records before the patient leaves the waiting room. This will help capture the missing background information, give doctors and nurses the required context, and minimize the time taken for the appointment.
Service delivery: This is where the doctors and nurses finally come into the picture. The key to helping doctors and nurses provide better customer service is equipping them with the right tools. Allowing doctors and nurses to quickly pull up medical records and easy access to diagnostic tools can help them make better decisions on behalf of their patients. In addition to this, doctors and nurses should also have the ability to record observations, note patient concerns and queries easily, and put down their final diagnosis and recommendations.
Continuation of healthcare/follow-ups: Most healthcare procedures require more than one activity and follow-up appointments. You may need to transfer patients for additional tests, schedule follow-up appointments, or even refer them to other specialists for dedicated treatment and diagnosis.
The simple fact that most healthcare appointments aren’t restricted to a single appointment leads to additional complexities. And according to Deloitte’s research, this seamless transfer of information (or the lack of it) across departments and specialists is where the healthcare customer experience tends to falter.
Let’s take the example of the New Hope Fertility Care Center, a New-York based clinic that specializes in a variety of IVF treatments. NHFC prides itself on customizing treatment procedures for every patient – and proactively supporting them every step of the way to parenthood. Along this journey, email serves as an important communication channel between the various teams at NHFC and the patients – be it for providing medical instructions or answering billing-related queries.
The nursing department at NHFC uses email to provide instructions to patients, answer their questions, inform them about lab results, and more.
Each department at NHFC had its own group email. Every time a patient sent an email to a group email address, each department member would receive a copy of that email in their work inbox. This meant that if someone emailed firstname.lastname@example.org, all the nurses would receive the same email in their inbox.
Because of this, there was no easy way to find out if a patient email was responded to or not. Patients’ emails often went unattended. On other occasions, multiple team members answered the same email inquiry.
NHFC’s Operations Associate Jennifer Nguyen, who is responsible for improving the office’s workflow and increasing patient satisfaction, set out to look for a solution to improve the quality of patient care and help her team work more efficiently.
Her search led her to Hiver — a Gmail-based customer service solution. Implementing Hiver ensured that teams became more collaborative, workflows became simplified and there were no more missed emails.
Customer service tools like Hiver can easily help hospitals and clinics transfer data within departments and make it easier to track patient queries and follow-ups easily.
Billing and insurance: Billing and insurance departments at most healthcare institutions have a terrible reputation for their customer service. They are known to be notoriously slow, lacking in communicating, and making customers run from pillar to post with the frequent reworking of forms, medical records, etc.
To make the end-to-end customer experience in healthcare a great one, hospitals and clinics need to ensure that the billing and insurance departments don’t spoil the party.
Hospitals and Clinics can make this experience better by setting the same goals of being patient first and training the staff at these departments accordingly. The billing and insurance departments should also have access to the same tech stack and the same unified systems of medical records that make it easier to reference and store patient information for further processing.
From integrating technology at every customer touchpoint to addressing every patient’s need with the utmost amount of care, empathy, and everything else that lies in between, there are no limits to what a healthcare provider can do to improve the patient experience. Excellent customer service is critical in all industries, but maybe, none more than in healthcare. So go ahead, and give your patients the care that they deserve.