Enhancing the Patient Experience
Long-term, trust-based relationships improve practice profitability
Are you continuously working to meet or exceed your patients' expectations? In the profession's current climate in which practices oftentimes provide little or no customer service, and frankly, sometimes the service is so awful that it causes patients to leave and seek care elsewhere, having a strong patient-centric culture can be a significant strategic advantage. Enhancing patient experience can and should be part of your value proposition that retains patients and helps increase treatment acceptance.
We are living in a time of overabundance, and consumers have more choices than ever before. To survive, many companies have switched from a product-centric strategy to a customer-centric one. For healthcare providers, this means embracing a patient-centric philosophy to guide all that they do. Providing an exemplary patient experience may be the biggest competitive advantage that a dental practice can leverage to retain patients as well as to attract new ones who will remain loyal. Furthermore, patients who have great experiences are more likely to trust their dentists and say yes to recommendations for treatment; therefore, dental practices that put patients at the center of their strategies are discovering that they are the real winners in this new era.
Patient-centric dental practices shift from "inside out" thinking to an "outside in" mindset, considering their patients' needs first, then working backward. In addition, they continuously consider and assess what their patients really want–beyond what they are asking for–and then consider the experiences that can be created to fulfill those needs. That goes a long way toward building and maintaining long-term, trust-based relationships with your patients. Some practices even embrace what is referred to as "patient obsession," which is a state of hyperfocus on the creation of a better patient experience from the patient's perspective. However extreme your enthusiasm, a commitment to having a patient-first approach requires your practice to embrace the mantra that "Patient needs are at the center of everything that we do."
What Is Patient Experience?
In a general sense, patient experience is based on a person's emotions, perceptions, and opinions regarding any part of his or her interaction with a practice. As a measure, patient experience can be considered the sum of the interactions between a practice and a patient over the duration of their relationship–essentially, the patient's net perception after subtracting the bad experiences from the good ones. Delivering an exceptional patient experience sets your practice apart, but to do so, you need to meet and hopefully exceed patients' expectations during all points of contact. Patient experience encompasses every aspect of your practice's offerings, from the quality of the patient care, the accuracy of billing, and the forms that you use, to the condition of your waiting area, lavatories, and parking lot as well as other service features, such as honoring scheduled appointment times and other commitments. The objective is to provide an exceptional experience for patients at all times, and everyone in the practice plays a vital role in achieving this. Beyond being attentive to the specific desires of individual patients, any potential contributors to a poor patient experience should be avoided, including the following:
• A perceived lack of empathy
• Failure to warmly greet and welcome patients on arrival
• Patient inability to reach a person at the practice
• Dropped patient phone calls
• Multiple transfers of phone calls
• Poor automated phone prompts
• Long wait times in the waiting area
• Failure to reply or delayed responses to email messages
• Confusing or missing information on the practice website
• The perception of being rushed through an appointment
• Inaccurate treatment codes leading to insurance problems
An Investment in Loyalty
When building long-term, trust-based relationships, it's important to look beyond single transactional events and consider the lifetime value of patients. Patient lifetime value, which is defined as the predicted net profit generated throughout the entire life of the relationship with a patient, indicates how valuable a patient can potentially be to your practice in the long term instead of solely considering the value brought through treatment rendered. This is one reason why it's worth the investment to build and maintain patient loyalty–the ROI is excellent. It is much less expensive to retain patients than to attract new ones; however, if adding new patients is also a part of your strategy, given the power of social media, rave reviews from patients who had exemplary experiences will certainly help.
Are You Listening?
According to American business magnate Bill Gates, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." Patient experience is an ongoing perception, and a key part of ensuring success in meeting expectations is to listen to patient feedback, especially criticism, and incorporate it into your action plans. For specific guidance regarding how and in which areas your practice can improve patient experience, patient surveys can be great tools. These should include qualitative questions structured to elicit detailed responses, such as the following:
• What do you feel that we do really well?
• Why is that important to you?
• What don't we do so well?
• How does that affect you?
• What do we do that annoys you?
• What don't we do that you wish we would?
Act on Patient Feedback
Do not waste this opportunity for improvement. Merge the desires of your patients with your overall business strategy. This can be achieved by consolidating direct, indirect, and inferred patient feedback received through numerous intersecting channels and creating systems to resolve patient concerns in real time. Because various teams and areas of the practice are involved in patient interactions, knowledge-sharing programs can be an effective way to remove departmental barriers and improve the consistency of your efforts to enhance patient experience.
Culture by Design
A practice's culture is a set of values that drives behavior; it is an organization's "personality." Culture influences virtually everything in a practice, including treatment, communications, decision-making processes, who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets developed, who gets promoted, how employees are compensated, how conflict is handled, the quality of the practice's services, how the team members relate to each other and to patients, and more. Consequently, time and energy spent on the creation and maintenance of a healthy practice culture is time and energy well spent. To instill and nurture an exceptional patient experience as an integral part of your practice's mission, you must make it a core value and a vital part of your culture. And as the leader of your practice, you need to personally live it and "walk the talk." Align every team member in your practice around delivering exceptional patient experiences. Everyone needs to be fully committed to shifting their thinking about patient experience, unified in their approach, and 100% patient focused. To that end, investing in employee wellness can be an important differentiator for practices that want to attract and retain talent. According to some indicators, if your team members don't feel supported in their goals, they are three times more likely to hunt for a new job. Given the high cost and stress associated with staff turnover, to boost retention, you should reward your team with bonuses based not only on collections or production but also on your patient experience ratings. Remember: what gets rewarded gets done, so in addition to appropriate bonuses, reinforce the behavior that you want with regularly planned rewards such as gift cards, vacation time, and other employee benefits.
About the Author
Frank Manfre is the founder of Breakthrough Consulting Associates in Atlanta, Georgia, and serves as executive director of the Alabama Dental Laboratory Association.