Taking patient ‘happiness’ more seriously

Dan Gorenstein Sep 26, 2014

Taking patient ‘happiness’ more seriously

Dan Gorenstein Sep 26, 2014

It’s a great time to be in the hospitality industry… if you want to go into health care.

In case you haven’t noticed, health care is becoming more consumer-focused by the day, and in a fight for our business, insurers and health care providers are hunting for executives whose business is customer service — making sure once we walk through the door, we stay.

Deedra Hartung with Cejka Executive Search says hospitals are starting to pay top dollar for “patient experience officers.”

“The right background for a Chief Experience Officer can range up to approximately $250,000,” she says.

The Chief Experience Officer is responsible for what you’d expect: making sure a patient feels good about their hospital stay. The challenge for health care providers, says Hartung, is to understand “what makes one facility more comfortable for a patient than another.”

Hospital executives struggle to answer the question Hartung raises. Clearly, as long as prices remain hidden and it’s nearly impossible to assess quality, the industry will have a customer service crisis on its hands. But with patient satisfaction scores now tied to hospital bonuses (and penalties), some health care organizations have started to take steps to improve the patient experience.

It starts with snapping up executives like Fabian Marechal, who runs Penn Medicine’s new Musculoskeletal Center. Marechal’s pedigree is impeccable; he cut his teeth with Marriott and Ritz-Carlton.

“You know, in my practices, you won’t see magazines that are two years old or dead plants,” he says, laughing. But Marechal’s not joking.

Marechal says he’s learned a lot from his time in the hospitality sector — one of the most important lessons is that people must feel cared for. So frontline staff greet customers like a doorman or concierge at the Ritz, and walk them over to the kiosk to help with registration. It’s a little thing, Marechal concedes, but with big symbolic value.

“I think all of this helps patients be more engaged in their care. [It shows] people are going to listen to me, people are going to acknowledge me. It changes your mindset from the get-go. You are more open and you feel more safe and secure to listen to your caregiver,” he says. Another lesson Marechal picked up along the way: Better customer service can turn that new customer into a repeat customer.

Health insurers have every incentive under the sun to improve their customer service. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans have begun to shop online through the public exchanges for their insurance coverage, and this may be the wave of the future for many Americans. The firm that makes online insurance shopping easyokay, as easy as it can bewill have a significant advantage over its competitors.

Aetna’s Dijuana Lewis, whom the insurance company hired away from Wal-Mart, says the message is clear.

“It’s all about knowing the customer, what the customer wants and how they want it. Health care hasn’t really been approached that way,” she says. It sounds simple, and it can be.
But Harvard’s Ashish Jha has seen plenty of missteps in the industry’s rush to “know their customers.”

“I’ve seen a lot of hospitals that have made big investments in things like having a pianist in the lobby of the hospital,” he says. But pianos are easy. Jha says the hard workthe work that wins consumer loyalty — is training staff to better connect with their patients, and sticking with it long enough to change the culture.

Maybe, Jha says, an infusion of hospitality executives will bring that kind of dedication and a bit more humanity to health care.

 We asked three experts for some basic tips on improving the patient experience. Here’s what they said:

Fabian Marechal, Director of the Penn Musculoskeletal Center at Penn Medicine University City

  • Manage wait times. Think: texting software or beepers in restaurants.
  • Humanize and personalize throughout the patient experience. It’s not a conveyor line, touch the patient at each step of the visit.
  • Engage the patient in their care and seek constant feedback, Their experience starts from the website to the discharge.

From Ashish Jha, K.T. Li Professor of International Health Director, Harvard Global Health Institute, Harvard School of Public Health

  • Hospitals and doctors should be clear so the patient should know what to expect with their treatment.
  • A medical bill should be simple so the average consumer can plainly see their share of the bill and what the insurer owes.
  • Physicians should be forthcoming when they don’t have immediate answers. Doctors must communicate how they plan to address a patient’s concern and that they are a partner and advocate for the patient.
  • Patients are often worried about their health, so doctors, nurses and other staff must take time to talk with the patients – treat them like a person with a life beyond the borders of healthcare, not a dislocated shoulder or a balky heart.

Dijuana Lewis, Aetna Executive Vice President Consumer Products and Enterprise Marketing

  • Make health plans simpler and more intuitive. People will be able to get more value out of products that are easy to understand and use.
  • Take advantage of digital technologies to improve the convenience of health care, helping people get what they need so they can get back to life.
  • Use consumer insights to personalize the health care experience so we can best serve the individual needs of each member.

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