Dec 1 2011
By Debbie Myers
We know the old adage: The customer is always right. But is the patient right as well?
In healthcare, we don’t always think so. The customer service issues that are elevated to the C-suite often reflect the most extreme situations, ranging from “squeaky wheel” complaints to emotionally-charged lawsuits. While these are very important to address, they represent the outliers of the patient experience.
It’s a problem that we wait for the patients to come to us with their concerns. What would happen if we instead engaged the average patient?
I had the opportunity to do exactly that earlier this month through a focus group. A cross section of twelve consumers – men and women, ages 35 to 65 – weighed in on their personal health goals, their troubles with hospitals and their hopes for the future of healthcare. These consumers offered a snapshot of what I hear from many patients about their patient experience:
Consumers are frustrated – As much as providers would like to separate themselves from insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, consumers see them as one family that should be working together. During the focus group, I heard across-the-board frustration about the cost of healthcare and the lack of access to advanced treatments (even though the focus group was conducted in a major metropolitan market). Many expressed anger that insurance companies are calling the shots on what is covered, that pharma companies “gouge us” and that hospitals and physicians seem to care more about payment than providing care. All of healthcare is getting blamed for the flaws of the system and little credit for the good work that is being done to improve quality and reduce costs. One forward-thinking consumer suggested that insurance companies should have their offices on the same medical campus with doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, just like how banks can be found in any shopping center. Even the appearance of working together could go a long way in communicating “we’re all in this together” for the patient.
Consumers want time with their doctor – I heard stories of people waiting for hours to see a physician, only to have less than five minutes of his time. Some consumers talked about being “passed on” to a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, never seeing their physician during a scheduled appointment. Consumers have little tolerance hearing that their physician is busy. One woman told me, “I am busy too. I have arranged my schedule around my doctor appointment, I have prepared succinct questions and I have all of my medications listed. I am prepared and on time. Why can’t my doctor show the same respect?”
Despite the frustration of waiting, consumers respect physicians, and they want their attention and expertise. Unfortunately, they see other members of the care team in supporting roles but lacking the knowledge and experience of a physician. An opportunity for healthcare is to elevate the “brand” of nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers, nutritionists, etc. as experts who can provide real solutions for patients. Helping consumers see the benefit of have a care team could lessen the demands on the already overextended physician.
Consumers want wellness and prevention programs – As one consumer opined “I get it, if we all do a better job staying well, health costs would go down.” With obesity and its associated health risks on the rise, it might appear that consumers just don’t care about their health. However, this is not the case. Consumers have a strong desire to prevent illness and disease, but may not know how to do it on their own. Consumers want coaches to help them find the right resources and tools to stay healthy. They also want more access to wellness programs beyond health clubs – like nutritional counseling, guidance in shopping for the right foods and preventive health screenings. And they want some cost incentives for staying healthy. Many large employers are finding that wellness incentives are popular with their employees – perhaps discounts can be extended beyond the workplace to physician offices, such as earning points for staying healthy. As one consumer told me, “Make it fun and more people will pay attention.”
When Marshal Fields department store in Chicago created the concept that the customer is always right, the purpose was to make customers feel good about their shopping experience. Perhaps if we listen more to the healthcare consumer, they, too, will view their patient experience more favorably.