Want to Improve Patient Experience? Hire the Right Staff.

Any successful company recognizes the importance of customer touchpoints—those critical moments when a customer engages with someone in the organization. “With the rise of consumerism, healthcare organizations are no different,” says Sarah Holt, a nationally known author and healthcare management consultant. Holt believes that for too long hospitals and physician practices haven’t focused enough on business operations, assuming clinical expertise would make up for any shortcomings. With a changing competitive landscape, they can no longer afford to do so.

“Patients are not a captive audience,” says Holt. “Healthcare organizations must recognize that patients have a choice and will go somewhere else.”

Holt recommends and believes that in order to focus on the entirety of the patient experience, organizations must start from the inside out—by building a high-performance team.

Focus first on hiring and then on training

Building a high-performance team starts by hiring and training the right people. But this is where Holt believes many hospitals and physician practices fall short.

“We in healthcare are terrible at training and hiring,” she says. “But if you hire the right people, the training is far easier.” Holt believes many healthcare organizations are too focused on filling an open position, and the people tasked with hiring don’t understand what the job requires.

Organizations can start addressing the hiring problem by understanding the job requirements, including skill level, knowledge level, and behavioral characteristics. Holt recommends behavioral interviewing as a tool in assessing how an individual might perform in a given situation. This technique, which involves asking interviewees to describe how they handled a past situation, is good predictor of job performance.

Once on board, there should be some level of formal training for new employees, rather than expecting them to “pick up” what they need to know on the job. They should also spend time shadowing more experienced staff members until they have the appropriate skill level.

Set expectations and hold people accountable

The front desk is often seen as the root cause of patient dissatisfaction. An analysis of physician online reviews published in the Journal of Medical Practice Management found that 96 percent of complaints were related to poor customer service. However, Holt is quick to point out that these complaints usually reflect something bigger.

“Problems at the front desk are an indication that the organization is not being held accountable,” she says. “The whole organization has to support the patient experience.” She notes that a mistake at one touchpoint can erode confidence in the entire hospital or practice. Whether it’s a disorganized waiting room or a billing problem, once trust is gone it’s not easily recovered.

Building accountability starts by having clearly documented policies and procedures in place for all operational areas, updating them regularly, and making sure people follow them.

Manage difficult business conversations

Healthcare providers are no strangers to difficult clinical conversations, but talking to patients about financial matters is another issue entirely. For a long time insurance covered most costs and staff members were happy to “bill the co-pay” rather than ask for payment. But that’s no longer financially viable. A recent study found that between 2009 and 2013, patients with commercial insurance paid 37 percent more out-of-pocket for major healthcare expenses, with most of this growth attributed to an increase in deductibles.

“It’s difficult to help patients understand that their five thousand dollar deductible is an uninsured portion of their insurance, and that nothing happens from the insurance until that deductible is met,” says Holt. A patient’s confusion can lead to frustration and then anger, which creates a difficult situation for that patient and for others within earshot.

Holt recommends that once the patient indicates an inability or unwillingness to pay, there should be a trained, administrative staff member available to take that person into a quiet, private area to discuss.

“Clinicians do not need to talk to patients about money,” says Holt. “If you can get your providers to make sure they don’t engage at that level they will be better off.”

Help employees understand the big picture

One of the most important things healthcare organizations can do is help employees understand the goals of the organization and how their specific roles fits in.

“Healthcare is a higher calling,” says Holt. “We have the ability to impact a person’s day in a positive or negative way.” Sometimes, just reminding people of that and giving them a pep talk can make a big difference in how they view their roles.