Practice Management: Be a ‘Customer Relations’ Specialist

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 --

Skill Sharpener

The secret to any thriving business is repeat customers, and you’re in the perfect position to help your practice make sure patients remain happy campers.

For starters, beware how little clinical shortfalls can ring major alarm bells with patients. “Patients typically define ‘quality of care’ in terms of how quickly they were seen and how they were treated by the physician, nurse and receptionist,” says Victoria Jackson, administrator/CEO of Southern Orange County Pediatric Associates in Lake Forest, Calif. “But certain clinical experiences communicate a lack of basic competence,” she says – for example, shots that really hurt or multiple sticks for a lab draw.

In addition, clinical staff members who lack skill practice will communicate their performance anxiety to patients who may, in turn, think twice about coming back for more. Failure to follow through in answering patients’ phone calls or making referrals also sends the wrong message to patients about the practice’s competency, Jackson says.

Share the Good, Bad and Ugly

You can also help the practice hold onto its patients by being open to their comments about the care and service. “Patients may be more likely to share complaints or comments with nurses because they don’t want to confront the physician,” says Glenn McElroy Jr., a physician practice consultant with McElroy and Associates in Columbia, Mo. “The smart docs listen to that kind of feedback and make changes accordingly.”

For example, one patient confided in the nurse that she was looking for another family doctor because her teen-age daughter didn’t want to come to the office to get ongoing blood work to monitor a thyroid condition. Why? For one, the office made the teen-ager wait for up to an hour to have her lab work done. And the person doing lab draws often had to stick her two to three times. The nurse passed along these observations, and the office corrected the problem immediately, thereby salvaging a long-time relationship with the family.

Pointer: Women are often the decision-makers in families when it comes to selecting healthcare providers. So pay careful attention to why they are unhappy with your practice or have decided to go elsewhere, says Catherine Tantau, BSN, RN, MPA, principal of Tantau & Associates in Chicago Park, Calif.

Team Up With the Physician

Your practice can better meet patients’ needs if the physician and nurse(s) work together as a clinical team. For example, nurses in some practices call patients the day after a visit to see if they are feeling better and/or have any questions. That strategy helps develop a relationship with the patient outside the regular office visit, Jackson says. “The patient has someone he or she can call with concerns, as many don’t want to bother the physician,”
she adds.

Communicate the “team” approach to the patients at the outset, says Susan Levy, MSN, RN, who worked as an office nurse and clinical specialist for an infertility specialist. “When we first met the patient, the doctor would introduce me as his nurse and indicate that the patient would talk to me most of the time, and then we would go over the calls and he’d call them back later in the day,” Levy says.

Don’t Play by the Numbers

Make sure patients never feel like just a number. “Your office can do everything perfect clinically, but if you don’t practice good communication skills and provide compassionate care, your office will lose patients,” Jackson says. Simple things count more than you know, such as sitting down with the patient to listen and making eye contact.

“Spend a little extra time with elderly patients, as many of these patients often come to the doctor for companionship,” Jackson says. Ask patients what they want to be called before addressing them automatically by their first or last name (and then write their preferred name in the front of the chart). Ask if the patient needs anything else before he leaves the office. (For more communication and customer satisfaction tips, see “Step Up Your Quality of Patient Services”.)

Follow Up on Disappearing Acts

Suggest the office develop routine ways to figure out why patients quit the practice. That’s especially important if your office is seeing a steady exodus of patients, which will eventually threaten your paycheck. For example, some offices have the nurse or another skilled communicator call patients who are overdue for an annual checkup or preventive screening to determine why they haven’t made an appointment. If done with sensitivity, that tact opens the door for patients to explain honestly why they don’t want to come back to that particular practice.

Exit letters requesting the patient to return a feedback form can also give you the information you need to make changes, Tantau says. “Otherwise, you might think it’s the office decor, so the practice invests thousands of dollars in new furniture, and then finds out the problem is someone in the office who gets cranky with the patients.”


Barnali is a medical coding and billing writer at TCI who has worked in the healthcare industry since 2009. She holds a master’s degree in English literature and a diploma in advertising and marketing. She enjoys writing about ICD-10 and Medicare compliance.


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