When people have a choice of products or services, what do they look for? What do they want most? Quality, convenience, and value are the frequent, obvious answers — including the way they look at healthcare options.
In the 2nd annual patient perspective survey report, 69.4 percent of patients said they would switch doctors to better satisfy their wants and conveniences. That’s just one clear indication of the current consumerization of healthcare. Another is the recent price transparency regulation, illustrating the government’s participation in a more honest, consumer-friendly healthcare “shopping” environment.
Here are the top aspects of the patient experience for which those patients mentioned above said they would switch doctors:
- a good listener
- flexible / late hours
- prompt responses to questions or concerns
- a short wait
- easy ways to book appointments
Most physicians and healthcare providers would agree the term “customer” feels a little too consumer-centric for healthcare practices, especially when communicating with patients. It is important, however, to remember that your patients do have choices and want an excellent experience with you and your practice. They are, in fact, your customers.
People, patients, consumers: How healthcare practices can address all three patient roles
In the complex world of U.S. healthcare, patients wear numerous hats. They are people, patients, and consumers (in that order), and it’s important for practices to acknowledge and address all three.
First, above all, every patient is a person. Every person wants to be treated kindly, respectfully, and with honesty, the key interactive components that define good customer service. Next, they are patients, of course. They want and need your care, rely on your expertise, and desire the highest possible quality care and best possible outcomes.
Last, every patient is a consumer. They are entering into a relationship with you by which they request or require a service you are uniquely positioned to deliver. In receipt of that service, the patient-consumer expects and responds to exceptional customer service, clear pricing, and convenience — just as they would from any merchant or company they interact with.
Shifting your practice mindset: Why and how to think of patients as customers
While the shift has been gradual, a better patient experience has become a top area of focus across the board in the U.S. healthcare industry, from solo-physician practices to the largest hospital systems. The increased attention on customer service as a component of the experience is the result of numerous factors facing today’s healthcare providers and organizations.
If your practice doesn’t yet think of patients as customers, here are four reasons to shift your mindset.
1. The consumerization of healthcare is here.
Some call it “the Amazon effect.” It’s the major shift that has occurred in consumer purchasing behavior based on the move to a digital marketplace. In recent years, this transition has finally made its way to day-to-day healthcare — with an overwhelming acceleration due to COVID-19.
Much like consumers in any industry, today’s patients assess and choose healthcare services in a digital environment. In most cases, prospective patients go online to search for a practice, or check on a provider referral. PatientPop data shows that three of four patients have relied on online resources to look for care, with 58 percent of patients doing so with some regularity.
While assessing their choices, people check online reviews and visit the practice website before deciding to book an appointment. By ensuring your practice has a strong web presence, an appealing, easy-to-use website, and an influential online reputation, you position your practice to get found and chosen by more prospective patients (aka “new customers”).
2. Patients have more options than ever before.
Access to healthcare has changed dramatically in recent years. Patients now have more places to receive care, with varying levels of convenience. As competition among healthcare delivery organizations continues to increase, we no longer have a level playing field of practice A vs. practice B.
Today’s independent practitioners must compete with large health system-owned practices; the major “retailers” of Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS; large urgent-care chains; employer-based telehealth services… the list goes on.
To stand out amidst these new care delivery options, your private practice has to find ways to compete — perhaps by offering extended (evening or weekend) hours, or simply by making it easy for a patient to schedule an appointment (online or via click-to-call on your website).
It’s also important to ask your patients for feedback, and try to tailor their experience, when possible. One way to meet that standard is asking patients how they prefer to hear from you, and offering phone, email, and text messaging to meet those preferences.
3. Convenience is one of the most significant aspects of the patient experience.
With a consumer mindset, and based on other consumer experiences, savvy patients expect a certain level of convenience from their healthcare providers.
Based on the PatientPop patient survey data research mentioned above, the conveniences in highest demand are short wait times, easy ways to book an appointment, and online access to health records.
While adding conveniences to your practice may seem daunting, some strategies are simpler than you would expect. To shorten patient wait times, for instance, consider the use of digital tools that save time for both patients and practice staff: online registration and intake, a digital fax service, and the use of automated appointment reminders and confirmations. With each step toward ease and scalability, your staff can focus on welcoming patients and streamlining front-office functions, for a better patient experience during an office visit.
4. Price transparency is on the way.
No person / patient / customer wants to pay more for a service. In nearly every industry, the customer knows the price of that product or service before they buy it. In healthcare, this concept has been lost for decades. It’s been buried beneath confusing managed care contracts, and facility and professional services fees that have made it nearly impossible for patients to understand out-of-pocket costs before receiving care.
Lawmakers and consumers aim to change that. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) put the Price Transparency rule into effect for hospitals and health systems on January 1, 2021, even though most patients don’t know they can look for or access pricing.
As patients become more aware of this requirement, however, healthcare practices can get ahead of what may be to come by simplifying patient pricing and billing. This could include posting prices for basic services on your website, especially for out-of-pocket services or 100 percent patient payment options. Online bill pay also makes it easier for patients to understand charges and access their account.
A customer-focused mindset can drive patient loyalty and healthcare practice growth
No matter how you see the current patient view of the healthcare system, patients are indeed customers. Treating them as such, as part of the total patient experience, can help you establish loyal patient relationships. Practices that think digital first, and patient-focused always can drive both patient acquisition and retention for long-term practice growth.