Excellent service to patients requires vision, planning

November 1, 2011

Superior service doesn't just happen. Experts say it requires having a proactive plan for an element of medical practice that many physicians unfortunately overlook. As physicians, says Victor J. Marks, M.D., "Service is what we do. We don't make or grow anything. We serve other people."

Key Points

National report - Superior service doesn't just happen. Experts say it requires having a proactive plan for an element of medical practice that many physicians unfortunately overlook.

As physicians, says Victor J. Marks, M.D., "Service is what we do. We don't make or grow anything. We serve other people." He is director, department of dermatology, and section chief of dermatologic surgery at Geisinger Health System, Danville, Pa.

He says it's crucial that dermatologists provide service that patients can recognize as exceptional. In a competitive marketplace, "People will come to us based on whether they believe that the service we provide is better than the competition," he says.

"When patients have the power to choose which practice they go to, they're more likely to choose a practice that meets not just their medical needs, but their overall needs," she says. Ms. Ellison is president, Ellison Consulting Group, and an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership's Colorado Springs, Colo., campus.

Marketing matters

Dr. Marks says that when it comes to marketing, "We tend to focus our efforts on our diagnostic, clinical and technical skills. The problem is, patients can't evaluate our clinical abilities very well. Most patients give us the benefit of the doubt." Instead, he says, they base their opinions of a physician mainly on their interactions with the physician and his or her practice.

"People remember how you made them feel, especially patients. They often find medical settings uncertain and frightening. The more high-touch and service-oriented you can be, the more you can alleviate their fears and give them a better experience in your practice," Ms. Ellison says.

When people visit a doctor, she says, "They are usually entering the situation with some anxiety and trepidation. They have had to take time away from work to be there. They come to your door worried about something, perhaps something that they fear will result in debilitation or death. They worry what it will cost, if it will hurt and when they can get back to normal. These simple fears can be easily overlooked by busy physicians and staff, but they shouldn't be."

Patient anxiety is often further increased by annoying things that a practice does, she says. Examples include subjecting patients to excessive wait times before they can see the physician, or staff members asking the same questions repeatedly.

"When staff are rude or gruff in the way they approach patients, anxiety increases further," Ms. Ellison says. "A highly anxious patient often doesn't hear what you said, and as a consequence, is less likely to follow the instructions you've given them. This obviously affects outcomes."

Dr. Marks says that when it comes to practice systems and processes, "Patients evaluate us on the ease of making appointments, the check-in process, the flow in our offices, the ease of checkout and the timeliness and accuracy of billing." Patients also evaluate the practice environment - how it looks, smells and feels and whether staff members conduct themselves with professionalism, he says.

In other words, he says, "Is there excessive levity, or is the decorum in the hallways as we would want our patients to perceive it? Are our waiting rooms neat and tidy," with appropriate music, magazines and other accoutrements? In the latter area, Ms. Ellison says that amenities ranging from aesthetic features such as waterfalls to warm cookies can surprise and delight patients, thereby differentiating one's practice from the competition.