The tough global economy has challenged organizations in every industry, including healthcare, to continue providing high-quality service in the face of financial obstacles such as declining reimbursements. Hospitals have come a long way in improving the level of care and the quality of the patient experience. These efforts have resulted in recent increases in overall patient satisfaction, as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, especially in areas such as outpatient and inpatient care and ambulatory services.
But patients are less forgiving of poor service than they once were, and the bar keeps being raised higher because of the continually improving service quality offered by other kinds of companies with whom patients interact—overnight delivery services, online retailers, luxury auto dealerships and more. With these kinds of cross-sector comparisons now the norm, hospitals will have to venture beyond the traditional realm of merely providing world-class medical care. They must put in place the operations and processes to satisfy patients through differentiated experiences that engender greater loyalty.
The key is to approach patients as customers, and to design the end-to-end patient experience accordingly. That moves the focus of a hospital’s capabilities from purely clinical competencies to those that also cover customer management. Hospitals should concentrate on offering patient-relevant services that deliver a unique and differentiating experience. This approach can foster longer-term relationships and enhance the provider’s overall brand value.
Delivering an enhanced patient experience
The benefits of taking a customer-centric approach to improving the patient experience can be seen in a recent pilot conducted by a prominent US academic medical center. It had found that improvement initiatives focusing only on clinical procedures were no longer enough to keep patients satisfied—or, from a competitive standpoint, to lure them away from other regional hospitals. The center wanted to explore additional ways to enhance its value proposition to its patients, so it initiated a program to design and deliver a more customer-centric experience.
The hospital identified a facilities expansion initiative as an opportunity to team with regional corporations to improve the service experience for their employees, making it easier for them to access the hospital and its services. The initiative would give the corporations an opportunity to contribute philanthropically as well as work closely with the hospital in developing a new approach to customer-centric healthcare. Furthermore, deepening and extending customer relationships would help the medical center collaborate with local corporations eager to share in the mission of improving care.
The center began by developing a blueprint for the new service experience. It piloted the program with employees of the local corporations and leveraged lessons from the pilot to improve the service experience of its larger patient population.
Keys to success
Meeting the basic needs of patients/customers requires improving established modes of working. To create a customer-centric service experience, different departments need to collaborate and share information in new ways. Processes must be in place to protect confidential information, of course, but ultimately the goal is to make it easier for patients to get the care and support they need.
The pilot at the US medical center successfully implemented several innovations that have improved the customer experience, especially in terms of information consistency, access, communications and personalized service.
Making information more consistent
Previously some information, such as online visibility into physician schedules, was provided inconsistently to the center’s patients; one clinic, for example, might provide access to physician calendars while another might not.
To improve consistency, the pilot project team applied lessons from the logistics and delivery industry, which sets service expectations and then meets them so reliably that customers trust the system. One of the capabilities put in place to meet that level of expectations was a self-service portal that has improved the quality and consistency of information. Information available through the portal matches what is provided to the patients through all other points of contact. This approach reduces stress and reassures patients who might otherwise be confused by conflicting data.
Providing access options
The center found that patients in different demographics have different preferences for receiving communications and accessing information. The pilot included both older (averaging in their 50s) and younger (averaging in their 30s) groups of patients. The medical center found that these two age groups had different needs and preferences, as well as different attitudes and expectations, when it came to their overall patient experience. The younger patients, for example, preferred to pull information when, where and how they wanted it. Older patients, on the other hand, were more interested in having information pushed to them.
Creating effective communications and education
The center is now also providing better health and program information and education to patients. For example, podcasts and webcasts from hospital or university professors are now available, as are wellness education programs.
Web-based multimedia education programs for patients can deliver a number of important benefits to hospitals. For example, they can reduce the number of calls patients make asking routine questions, increase the number of patient referrals and also set more realistic patient expectations. Equally important, education programs can enhance physician-patient relationships and increase patient satisfaction and loyalty.
Offering personalized service
The center has also put in place hospitality services, including a concierge team to ensure patients received onsite assistance. Dedicated service lines are available for making appointments; pre-appointment and post-appointment assistance is also provided. Follow-ups after hospital visits are now automated so that ongoing care is not ignored—something that can inadvertently occur when there are staff reductions.
Achieving the benefits
More satisfied patients come with a host of important benefits for hospitals. Satisfied customers can cost less to serve. They consume resources more efficiently—for example, by using self-service web portals instead of phoning customer representatives, a more expensive service to provide.
In a healthcare setting, there is an added benefit to satisfied customers: they are more likely to develop good health habits, such as following wellness regimens. They are more tuned into messaging from healthcare providers and, therefore, more likely to make follow-up appointments, take prescribed drugs and keep up with recommended screenings. In other words, they work with their healthcare providers to prevent illness rather than just seek treatment after illness occurs. This preventive approach can dramatically reduce the costs associated with medical care.
The academic medical center pilot demonstrated that hospitals must deliver a high-quality service experience to satisfy patients and earn their loyalty. The hospital is extending its work following the pilot to enable these new service experiences using CRM systems and customer analytics. These systems will help support consistent, personalized service to a broader patient population.
Recently, many hospitals have been especially focused on improving efficiency and reducing costs. However, to be effective and successful in the coming years, hospitals need to deliver memorable service experiences in addition to offering world-class clinical care. Strong leadership will be essential, as will deeper CRM competencies and better tools. Achieving customer-centricity will also require important changes to culture and ways of working, so change management programs will need to be put in place to encourage new kinds of behaviors and distribute awareness and better processes across the organization.
About the Author
Anil Swami is the global lead for Accenture’s Consumer Experience Management/Service Strategy domains.