Competition for patients sparked Baptist Medical Center's efforts to improve customer service.
To gather firsthand information, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Baptist hired Market Horizon, an Atlanta-area market research firm to conduct unannounced "visits," or patient-service audits, of its admissions department employees.
"Our employees knew we were going to do the audits, but they didn't know when*.*.*.*it would be done," said Marianne Hillegass, Baptist's director of admitting.
Posing as patients, six Market Horizon agents went through various admission procedures in 1991 to determine how well Baptist employees performed their jobs.
"The scores from the first audit were not that good," Ms. Hillegass said. "The standard greeting was OK, polite, but employees didn't always greet patients the way they had been trained."
Over time, however, Ms. Hillegass started to see improvements in Baptist's monthly customer-service surveys.
Comments from the "patients" in the first audit surprised executives, Ms. Hillegass said. "The comments we got shocked us," she said. "Now, our response from (auditors) is how pleasurable their experiences are."
Baptist conducted two other audits, in August 1992 and November 1993, at a cost of $2,500 each, she said. The audits covered employees working in general admissions, emergency, outpatient, obstetric and pediatric departments, she said.
The audits are important if the hospital is to improve its customer-service delivery, Ms. Hillegass said.
"Patients are more often becoming consumers of healthcare services and often make their own decisions as to which hospital they choose," she said. "We want their experience to be pleasant so they will come back or report favorably to their employer."
Baptist used the results of the audits to improve its patient-satisfaction scores more than 10 percentage points over a three-year period, Ms. Hillegass said.
"We sat down with the individuals who weren't performing and went through their audit sheet," she said. "The next time they were audited they performed well." Common courtesies and basic customer-service techniques were stressed, including providing clearer directions to patients, she said.
In September 1991, two months before the first audit was conducted, the patient-satisfaction score for women's services was 81%, meaning patients' expectations of good service were met 81% of the time. By March 1994, the score had risen to 93%, with a 12-month average of 92%, Ms. Hillegass said.
In the adult medical-surgical area, the patient-satisfaction score in September 1991 was 79%. By March 1994, with the improvement program in full tilt, the score increased to 90%.
She said poor scores generally were related to how employees greeted patients and the attitudes they conveyed.
"They are supposed to introduce themselves, give their title out of courtesy, ask if they've been here before and explain every form," Ms. Hillegass said.
"We spent a lot of training time to impress upon employees that they should put themselves in the patient's role," she said.
Besides the $7,500 spent on the audits, Ms. Hillegass said the hospital doesn't spend any more money on training than it did before. "It costs less to me," Ms. Hillegass said. "We get less complaints from patients and physicians."
Because of the audits, she said, "we now target the most difficult areas" in customer-service training.
Customer-service improvements also have become a regular part of monthly employee meetings. "We are seeing better results from the newer employees with the expanded training techniques," she said.