Customer Service in Healthcare: An Oxymoron?


Customer Service in Healthcare: An Oxymoron?

There are some accepted axioms in the world of business, such as the fact that it takes a mere 30 seconds for a customer to form a lasting opinion from a first impression, and that it can be 10 times more costly to attract a new customer than it is to retain an existing one. Another eye-opening statistic is that while a satisfied customer will only tell five other people about their experience, an unhappy patron will tell approximately 20 other people. These principles hold true in the business of healthcare, where the stakes are as high as patients’ expectations.

You may remember the American Hospital Associations study, “Reality Check: Public Perceptions of Healthcare and Hospitals,” in which researchers commented, “The public feels a growing impact upon themselves and their families in terms of reduced access, higher cost, lower quality, the competence of caregivers and a trend toward impersonal care. They see a growing focus on the financial bottom line overwhelming what they believe should be a dedication to individual patient care.” Peggy Zimmerman, in the book The Healthcare Customer Service Revolution, says that she has surveyed thousands of people to get their reactions to their personal experiences in healthcare situations, and all confirm that what needs to be improved in the healthcare arena most is the human element.

A recent study illustrates the difficulty with which many healthcare facilities still have in interacting with patients. An analysis of more than 2,000 calls to hospital switchboards revealed that nearly 60 percent of attempts to obtain a physician referral were not initially successful. This paper from The Beryl Institute, “Moments of Truth: Hospital Switchboards a Bottom-Line Issue,” investigates what happens during calls to the switchboards of 341 hospitals and medical centers across the country and provides tips for improving switchboard customer service. As customer service increasingly becomes a differentiating factor between healthcare facilities, consumers expect a more customer-centric experience or likely will take their business elsewhere. In another paper, “It’s Not Just a Call, It’s a Customer,” an analysis of more than 300,000 calls showing that 75 percent of callers who don’t get through on the first try will not call back a second time. “Our findings are consistently showing a demand for greater attention to customer service,” said Paul Spiegelman, executive director of The Beryl Institute. “Building relationships with patients begins long before they walk through the doors of the (healthcare facility). A phone call is often the first point of contact and, thus, can be the most important.” A free copy of the paper is available from

As Kristin Baird writes in the book, Customer Service in Health Care: A Grassroots Approach to Creating a Culture of Service Excellence, “Healthcare, by its very nature, is a highly personal service. Our patients are expected to share their most intimate secrets, often with complete strangers. Not only do we ask them personal details about bodily functions, lifestyle habits and mental status, we expect them to engage in these conversations openly and honestly while wearing nothing but a paper towel and socks. Worse yet, we ask them for personal details over and over during a single encounter. It’s important for all healthcare workers to remember that in the vast majority of situations, our patients are coming to us because something is wrong. Even with the more recent push for wellness, our medical model has been built around people coming to (healthcare facilities) when they are injured or ill. Some of life’s most memorable events happen in and around healthcare settings… When patients and their loved ones come in contact with (healthcare facilities), they are usually under emotional and physical stress. If all healthcare employees can keep this in mind as they come into contact with patients, visitors and other family members, they are much more likely to act with compassion and care.”

Dignity seems to be the new watchword for healthcare. Harvey Max Chochinov, MD, PhD, one of Canada’s leading palliative care experts and professor at the department of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, has written a new guide to help physicians maintain patients’ dignity. The guide, which outlines the A, B, C, and D of dignity conservation (A for attitude, B for behavior, C for compassion, and D for dialogue), says that doctors too often dismiss dignity in care because of a lack of time or because they feel a lack of expertise. Based on empirical evidence, the guide explains how kindness, humanity and respect are core values of medicine, but which are often thought of as the “niceties of care” only offered to patients if time and circumstances allow. It’s good thing the ASC industry doesn’t see it that way!

Until next month, 

Kelly M. Pyrek 
Group Editor, Virgo Publishing 
Medical Group


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