One of the good things about the volatility in the healthcare business is that more people are getting serious about service.
Providers and insurers long have paid lip service to the idea of customer satisfaction. The problem was that it was mostly talk. But with competition, managed care and excess capacity squeezing the industry, healthcare organizations are beginning to pay greater attention to the desires of their patients.
That doesn't mean price no longer drives the system. It does, and maybe always will be the main ingredient.
However, enlightened executives should take note that service is making important headway. That trend should continue as competition stiffens, consolidation intensifies and patient options dwindle. Those systems, networks, medical groups and HMOs that survive will be judged on their perceived value to patients. Thus, the winners will offer the right mix of price, clinical quality and customer service.
Last week's cover story by Louise Kertesz underscores the importance of defining customer satisfaction and the role performance measures will play as the public compares various health plans. Some clinicians may cringe at the thought, but the fact is patients generally equate medical quality with their own medical experiences. Convenience, waiting time, appearance, access and communication all play a role in determining satisfaction.
And the evaluation isn't necessarily restricted to the office or hospital. In New Hampshire, more than 20 hospitals have volunteered to track patients a year beyond their initial stay to determine the impact of medical care on their lives (April 29, p. 64).
The Patient-centered Care Project will examine the continuum of care, but it also gives consumers the opportunity to unload on caregiver performance. New Hampshire providers want to know if doctors and nurses "talk in front of you as if you weren't there" and whether the hospital staff "did everything they could to help control your pain."
We're also encouraged that the American Group Practice Association is benchmarking patient satisfaction for doctors at large medical groups (April 29, p. 65).
Such efforts need the unyielding commitment of all managers. Time and money need to be invested in training professionals and support staff about the importance of customer service. Most of all, the leadership and direction of management can make effective patient satisfaction a primary plank of the organization.