Quality of service makes the difference between good, great encounters with patients

May 1, 2012

Physicians with the most satisfied patients aren't necessarily the ones who spend the most time with patients. Sometimes, even getting the highest-quality goods or services doesn't make up for a poor interaction.

Key Points

Think of staying at a luxurious hotel with a beautiful view but a surly staff. You might not rate that experience as highly as a stay at the friendly, well-kept bed-and-breakfast down the street.

Are you creating satisfied patients? Assume that you've smoothed many of the bumps in your practice's work flow processes so that patients are not waiting for significant periods of time, and let's take it as a given that you and your practice are well regarded in the community. Superior customer service - the type that turns patients into advocates for your practice - hinges on more than just speed and quality, however.

• Introduce yourself. The patient, of course, knows who you are - they have an appointment scheduled with you - but this act of deference shows respect and always leaves the patient with a good impression. When appropriate, offer a handshake or a gentle touch during this introduction.

• Establish rapport. Treat each encounter as a building block in your relationship with the patient. Rapport doesn't necessarily require an extensive conversation. It may just take one or two comments - an observation about a change in the weather, the big game last weekend, or perhaps an inquiry about how school is going for a child. By finding a bit of commonality with the patient, you establish a measure of camaraderie and trust.

• Listen. Of course, you listen to your patients, but physician, researcher and author Jerome Groopman observes that doctors typically interrupt their patients within 18 seconds of the start of a conversation. For many people, an interruption can feel like an insult. Try these techniques to refine your listening and communication techniques with patients:

• Give the patient the opportunity to talk, then summarize their thoughts by saying: "Ms. Jones, I want to make sure that I understood you correctly. You said ...(summarize complaint)." In two short sentences you are assuring patients they have been heard and you are establishing the agenda for the visit. By coming to agreement early on about the nature of the visit, you have the platform to politely defer any extraneous topics raised to a future visit.

• Handle additional, unrelated issues like a pro. If the patient brings up additional complaints unrelated to the chief complaint, stress the need to give that new issue(s) proper consideration at another visit. For example, reply: "Mr. Jones, the issue you raise is so important that I'd like to allow enough time to thoroughly discuss it with you. Let's schedule a follow-up appointment about that."

• Use body language to your advantage. Lean in, not away, when talking or listening to patients. Make eye contact and avoid the football stance, which is sitting down with your knees apart. It gives the patient the impression that you're about to leap out of your chair. Instead, sit down and cross your legs. Periodically, take your hands off the keyboard, or put your pen down. These actions show the patient that they are more than a record.