Patients describe what they consider good customer service

Doctors’ knowledge and the office experience are more important than price in creating satisfaction, according to a new survey.

By — Posted Oct. 1, 2012

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When it comes to satisfying patients as customers, practices need well-trained physicians, easy access to patients’ histories and long appointments — or at least the impression of long appointments, according to a Harris Interactive Poll issued Sept. 10.

“As other industries try to build customer loyalty, they are setting certain expectations for service,” said Vaughn Kauffman, principal and leader of the payer advisory practice at the consulting firm PwC. “And consumers are carrying those expectations into health care.”

Harris researchers surveyed 2,311 adults between July 16 and 23. Eighty-four percent had visited a doctor’s office in the past 12 months. Of this group, 83% were satisfied or very satisfied with the encounter. When compared with other service industries, satisfaction scores were higher for restaurants and banks but lower for car dealers and health insurers.

Consultants who work with medical practices say many factors that go into making patients satisfied customers are easier to address than they sound. It’s important to do so, however, because satisfaction is becoming more critical in health care. Keeping patients happy can play a part in earning quality pay and persuading patients to come back and refer the practice to others.

For instance, 97% rated a doctor’s knowledge, training and expertise as important or very important with regard to creating a positive customer experience, although this factor is not readily changeable.

“That’s a given,” said Meryl D. Luallin, a partner with the SullivanLuallin Group in San Diego, which works with practices to improve the patient experience. “Patients take a doctor’s skills and training for granted. When you board a plane, you don’t stop by the cockpit to ask to see the pilot’s license. Patients typically make the assumption that somebody at the practice has already vetted the doctor.”

Other factors important to patients are easier to tackle. For example, 94% considered a physician being able to access a patient’s medical history as important or very important. Experts on the patient experience said this issue can be improved at practices with paper charts if physicians view them before entering the exam room. For physicians with electronic medical records who are not able to access the information until they are in the exam room, consultants suggest an introduction to the patient and then a brief explanation along the lines of, “I’m going to review your records, and then I’m going to give you my undivided attention.”

“It’s a little more challenging with electronic records because of the way a physician accesses the chart,” Luallin said.

This may help patients feel as if they have had a longer visit. Ninety-five percent in the Harris survey said time spent with the doctor is important or very important in being satisfied with the experience, but this does not necessarily mean lengthening appointments, which may be impractical or financially impossible for a practice. Consultants suggest that physicians sit in front of a patient rather than stand. Physicians who don’t look as if they are about to run out the door may give patients the impression of a longer visit.

“It’s all in the body language,” Luallin said.

Other surveys have suggested that consumers are less price-sensitive about health care than other industries but are more attuned to the service aspects. For example, a report on 6,000 consumers issued in July by PwC found that 69% said price was the No. 1 driver when considering leisure airline travel, but this was true for only 8% considering health care services. Forty-two percent said personal experience was the most important factor when choosing a doctor or hospital, but this was true for only 17% considering an airline ticket purchase.

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What satisfies patients?

Harris Interactive asked 2,311 adults to rate the importance of various aspects of a satisfactory experience in a health care visit.

Satisfaction factor Very important
or important
Not that important
or not at all important
Doctor’s overall knowledge, training and expertise 97% 3%
Time spent with the doctor 95% 5%
Doctor’s ability to access your overall medical history 94% 6%
Ease of making an appointment 91% 9%
Efficient, simple billing process 86% 14%
Ability to communicate with a physician by phone
or email outside of the appointment
85% 16%
Convenience of office location 85% 17%
Time spent in waiting room 83% 17%
Office appearance 75% 25%
Minimal paperwork 74% 26%

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Source: “Patient Choice an Increasingly Important Factor in the Age of the ‘Healthcare Consumer,’ ” Harris Interactive, Sept. 10 (link)

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External links

“Customer experience in health care: The moment of truth,” PwC, July (link)

“Patient Choice an Increasingly Important Factor in the Age of the ‘Healthcare Consumer,’ ” Harris Interactive, Sept. 10 (link)

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