Customer Service Skills in Healthcare: Why They Matter
When you think of jobs where customer service is key, your mind might drift toward jobs like restaurant servers, cashiers in retail stores or the people working customer support phone lines. You may be surprised to find that customer service skills are taking on a new importance in healthcare.
While bustling emergency rooms and clinics may not be the first thing you think of when someone mentions customer service, reforms tied to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have pushed healthcare employers to rethink their approach to patient satisfaction. This is great news for anyone who has polished their customer relations skills in public-facing roles and is looking to get started anew in the healthcare field.
Take some time to familiarize yourself with the events that have led to this new emphasis on customer service skills in healthcare.
Patient surveys shine light on healthcare customer service
Social reform is taking the spotlight after several technical changes have taken place in the healthcare industry over the past decade. A national survey called the HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) started being randomly administered to patients at participating hospitals in 2006.
The purpose of the survey was simple:
- To set a standard by which hospitals can be objectively compared
- To create new incentives for hospitals to improve quality care
- To create accountability by publicly reporting the survey’s findings
In this survey, patients are asked to evaluate several categories that are closely tied to customer service skills. Among them are the following factors:
- Communication with nurses and doctors
- Responsiveness of hospital staff
- Communication about medication and treatments administered
- Information provided at discharge
The information gathered in HCAHPS evaluations isn’t just for show, either. One element of the ACA and healthcare reform efforts is the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) Program. This provides a financial incentive for hospitals that provide quality care to patients receiving Medicare benefits. This is essentially a “carrot” from the government in hopes to push higher patient care standards—and healthcare providers are taking notice.
A closer look at customer service in healthcare
The fact that the federal government is putting an emphasis on customer service in healthcare is important. Hospitals and healthcare providers may have considered patient satisfaction as more of a “nice-to-have” afterthought in the past. But now with programs that incentivize better service, providers are beginning to adjust their priorities.
Joe Welfeld, healthcare consultant at The Welfeld Group, says he’s seen a shift in behavior from hospitals. “Customer service surveys and [improved] hospital amenities are becoming commonplace,” Welfeld says.
Changing the healthcare industry is a bit like turning an aircraft carrier—it takes considerable time and energy to make big changes to the path it’s on. The gradual changes we’re seeing now in healthcare providers’ approach to patient satisfaction were born out of a financial nudge from the government, but great customer service isn’t just about the bottom line.
“It is the right thing to do,” says Kiki Orski, former RN-turned-healthcare consultant. For patients dealing with an illness or injury, positive interactions with hospital staff can go a long way in improving an otherwise unpleasant situation.
How much is customer service emphasized in healthcare?
Though some argue it is not emphasized enough, the focus on customer service is surely growing. If you are seriously considering a career in healthcare, don’t plan on coming to work in your crabby pants. Many healthcare institutions are bringing in consultants to help implement patient satisfaction-focused policies and investing in professional development training to help existing staff polish up their patient-interaction abilities.
“These days, just being a good doctor or nurse is not enough,” says Dr. Resham Mendi, owner of Bright Light Medical Imaging. “We also need to provide transparency, affordability, communication and ways to make things easier for patients.”
Dr. Mendi finds that the healthcare providers with the most satisfied patients tend to apply business strategies from outside of the healthcare industry. “[Providers] need to pretend that they’re not a doctor’s office and observe what the most successful companies do,” she suggests.
Michael G. Cassatly, DMD, is among those who believe customer service is still not stressed enough in the medical world. However, with those institutions and professionals who have decided to emphasize and improve upon their customer service, he has definitely witnessed the rewards.
“It has resulted in fantastic results not only in the bottom line, but also in increased practitioner career satisfaction and decreased staff turnover,” Cassatly explains.
What are some customer service tips for healthcare providers?
There are a host of ways for healthcare providers and professionals to improve patient satisfaction. Dr. Mendi suggests providers consider the following:
- Does the patient know who staff members are? Staff should wear name tags and introduce themselves.
- Will patients know how much a procedure will cost? Be transparent about pricing.
- Does the patient know what will happen to them? Take time to explain procedures and what they can expect.
- Can patients find important information about your services online? Can they schedule appointments online? Make it as easy as possible.
- Does the patient know what you’re thinking? Communicate!
While niceties like warmly greeting patients, taking the time to explain and answer questions about procedures and keeping patient waiting areas orderly might seem like small details, they can add up and have an impact on a patient’s overall experience. These relatively easy-to-correct patient satisfaction factors are often a starting point for institutions looking to improve their overall patient experience.
Does prior customer service experience help?
At times, it may seem that the only experience that translates into the healthcare industry is some sort of medical experience. That’s just not true. Anyone who has learned the art of achieving excellent customer service or building a client’s trust has honed a skill that is now valued in the medical community.
This is good news for anyone who is short on healthcare experience but has excelled in prior customer-facing roles. While technical competence is always top of the list for what employers are seeking in candidates, someone who knows their stuff and has a demonstrated ability to work well with people may have an extra advantage. If you’re in an interview situation, don’t be afraid to highlight times where you did well interacting with customers in an otherwise unrelated role.
Everyone wants to be treated with respect, to be fully informed and to receive services from excellent employees—regardless of industry, Orski says. She explains that excellent service combined with exceptional clinical skills helps build trust between provider and the patient. Trusting patients are more likely to comply with treatment plans, which results in better patient outcomes.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Orski adds.
Leverage your customer service skills in healthcare
You’re now aware of the importance of customer service skills in the healthcare industry. You have the people skills the medical industry is seeking, so why not dig deeper to find your dream career in healthcare?
The good news is there’s a variety of positions that are currently in demand. Learn more about your options in our article, “11 Entry-Level Healthcare Jobs Employers Want to Fill Now.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in September 2012. It has since been updated. Insight from Orski and Cassatly remain from the original article.