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by Dave Schreiner
Published on April 3, 2017

What does customer service have to do with patient care? A lot.

Think about the steps an individual takes to get admitted to the hospital. At a minimum, they interact with someone at the registration desk, a registered nurse and a physician — and while each of those hospital staff members are trusted for their expertise, they're also part of the patient experience.

This is where customer service skills come in. The attitudes and manners of hospital staff and the amenities offered during a person's hospital stay have a big impact on patient satisfaction. Even the smallest interaction matters. If the attending physician seemed rude, or if the wait to see the physician seemed long and was not addressed, those instances can negatively color the patient experience beyond whether they received proper care.

Other industries like retail, food service and hospitality have long taken stock of the importance of great customer service. While hospitals are not likely to start placing bedtime mints on pillows, that shouldn't deter hospital staff from going above and beyond in terms of customer service.

How customer service can impact hospital revenue

More consumers are looking for a health care provider that can offer them the best experience for their money and needs. This is reflected in the industrywide shift toward value-based care, and it makes sense. Think about how many options you have for a local coffee shop. Chances are, you're going to go to the shop that has good reviews, extra amenities and a reputation for great customer service. If you have a bad customer experience, you're probably not going to return to that coffee shop no matter how well they make your morning latte.

Increasingly, hospitals are being held to the same customer service standards found in other industries. A poor patient experience risks losing a customer who might have returned for additional health care needs, which directly impacts a hospital's revenue. Enough poor patient experiences could lead to a diminished customer base — and while that's not good news for a hospital's bottom line, it also fails to support the hospital's mission.

The link between customer service and patient-centered care

Customer service at the hospital level isn't just about the dollars. It's got a lot to do with good sense. The patient should be at the center of care, and that means health care professionals should be concerned not only with providing treatment but also ensuring the patient has a positive experience. This has implications for the health care outcome, too. A 2013 study found that patient-centered care results in higher patient engagement, which is associated with better patient-perceived health outcomes.

Remember that unlike most other customer service-focused industries, a hospital's customers — its patients — don't usually choose to be there. Understanding this is crucial to providing customer service in a hospital setting, because it means that often, hospital staff is interacting with customers who are scared, uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the procedure. In these cases, providing excellent customer service means making patients feel at ease and comfortable.

In the end, customer service can be a small detail — the difference between delivering an analgesic shot with a smile and delivering it without — that can cast a positive light on a painful situation.

Good customer service means better hospital survey results

As we move toward value-based care, hospital surveys are increasingly being considered as an indicator of patient engagement and patient satisfaction. The Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) standardized survey measures patient perspectives on care quality, including patient communication with administrative and medical staff. The results of this survey help determine which hospitals are allocated annual Medicare funding. Hospitals that have a cultural focus on outstanding customer service don't have to worry as much about the HCAHPS survey because they're already working toward patient satisfaction. The best hospitals learn from the surveys and implement suggestions to get even better.

One example of this at Katherine Shaw Bethea (KSB) Hospital is in our anticoagulation clinic. This clinic serves patients, referred by their physician, in monitoring blood levels for Coumadin. The setting is patient-friendly, located just off the main lobby of KSB Hospital. The pharmacist over the clinic, Dr. Rob Baker, does a masterful job educating the patient and encouraging questions not only about this specific medication, but on any drugs the patient takes. I've seen Rob go above and beyond for his patients. Rob warmly welcomes the person, often referencing something that patient shared the last time they met. He pauses to make sure all questions are answered and ensures the patient understands any medication changes.

It's important to understand the implications excellent customer service can have not just on patient satisfaction and hospital revenue, but also on future funding and reputation. We're working toward world-class customer service every day at KSB Hospital, and we're noticing a difference not just in our patients, but in ourselves, too.

To read more of David Schreiner's thoughts, check out his blog. For more health IT insights from thought leaders in the industry, get your complimentary download of Perspectives, Cerner's digital publication.

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