The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is Louis Jordan’s Anthology:
Management consultants Katzenbach Partners and study co-authors Jenny Machida and Traci Entel have released a study, “The Empathy Engine: Achieving Breakthroughs in Patient Service,” reminding us that as a business, health care stands in need of the same standards of customer service as coffee shops or airlines.
Poor service drives Americans to switch health care providers, or drives them away from better-qualified providers, leading to inefficiency, higher costs and lower quality of care, according to the report, based on a survey of 1,003 Americans.
At the Beryl Institute’s recent “Power of Impressions” Conference in Dallas, Chris Bevolo, partner in GeigerBevolo said “as consumers are asked to spend more of their own money to receive care, they will consider the entire spectrum of value, from access and expertise to service, convenience, and price.”
The institute was created by The Beryl Companies, which for 20 years has sold outsourced call center services in health care.
The Katzenbach report recommends health care providers become “empathy engines,” in the words of the study’s authors, “transforming their organizations to allow frontline employees to focus on patient problems and innovate.”
And this applies to hospitals, clinics, payers, vendors and pharmacy chains as well.
Machida, an Engagement Manager at Katzenbach Partners, says it’s important to “provide an experience that keeps people in the system, that really solves their problems, and at the same time makes the entire system more efficient and effective. In practice that means managing the health care organization so that it really listens and cares.”
“The good news is that most health care workers are naturally empathetic,” adds co-author Entel, a Principal at Katzenbach Partners.
Americans do pay attention to customer service in health care. One in four Americans has switched or considered switching doctors (26 percent) or hospitals or clinics (23 percent) because of negative experiences, according to the research. More than half (52 percent) say they choose hospitals and clinics based on whether they believe employees understand their needs.
Health care providers are losing business as a result. One in four Americans say bad experiences have caused them to use (12 percent) or think about using (12 percent) walk-in centers to avoid hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.
Recently insurer UnitedHealth has been caught in a spate of negative publicity for its poor customer service, according to The Wall Street Journal
. “In the competitive commercial managed-care market, service issues are taking a toll, as some of UnitedHealth’s employer-customers have gone elsewhere, commercial enrollment has declined and state agencies have launched probes of claims-related practices,” Journal
reporter Dinah Wisenberg Brin has written.
Sheryl Skolnick, senior vice president at CRT Capital Group, told Brin that whether UnitedHealth has been hampered by the need to digest several large acquisitions or by the distraction of an options-backdating scandal that forced out a chief executive, “they lost their edge in being a great customer-service organization (and) went to being a poor one.”
How bad is customer service in health care? Not only are hotels and banks perceived as providing better customer service, but a sobering 18 percent think airlines are better at customer service than health care providers.
Brin writes that “in a fourth-quarter survey, the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures consumer attitudes, found that UnitedHealth’s score fell 4.4 percent year over year to 65 on a 100-point scale, the steepest decline and lowest level among health insurers. WellPoint was in the same league, falling 4.3 percent to 66. The group overall declined 1.4 percent to 71.”
The Katzenbach study’s authors argue that great customer service can lead to major improvements in the health care system: “Improved customer service has the potential to contain cost by limiting no-show appointments, the inefficiencies caused by switching providers (especially duplicated tests), and malpractice suits,” they contend. “Better customer service increases the satisfaction not only of patients but also of employees. That, in turn, improves retention of key personnel — in particular nurses, who are in critically short supply.”
Bevolo and other speakers addressing the Beryl Institute’s conference stressed that consumers’ access to cost and quality information is “the leading factor” in what they call “the emergence of customer service as a key differentiator in where consumers choose to receive care.”
The Beryl conference produced such recommendations as creating a corporate culture that nurtures “engaged” employees and understanding the customer service opportunities before, during and after a clinical visit as methods for improving customer service. “Turn moments of truth into moments of trust,” they stressed.
By making patients more willing to stick with their provider, better customer service improves continuity of care, which in turn improves quality of care, the Katzenbach study says.
“Empathy is what draws many workers to the health care industry in the first place,” Entel says. “They excel at improvising and finding small but important solutions.” She gave the example of Texas Children’s Hospital, which “empowers its employees to solve problems on their own. They acted on their own to bring in a mechanic to fix a door when a mother and child needed privacy.”
The esteemed Mayo Clinic takes customer service seriously — “staff found a way to schedule appointments more than six months in advance, in spite of the limitations of the computer software, by creating their own improvised system,” the study found.
“Health care providers don’t need to radically revamp their organizations,” Entel said. “But they do need to harness and unleash that empathy. Health care workers are ‘naturals,’ so health care organizations should not just perform on par with other industries like hospitality, but surpass them and become models for customer service.”
The study found a group of employees at NYU Medical Center that organized their own program to create new patient service standards. They created meetings and a reward system, and exerted peer pressure — “in a nice way,” the study noted — to get other employees involved. At Baptist Health Care, executives even participate in a ‘Work in My Shoes’ program where they swap jobs once a year with frontline workers.”
“The formal organization of systems and structures plays a key role,” Entel said. “Once the institution understands what its best employees are doing on the frontline — their innovations and contributions — it’s the task of the formal organization to put systems in place, such as recognition and training programs, that reinforce empathetic service and achieve large-scale impact.”