Healthcare Flunks Customer Service

Who gives worse customer service than airlines? Healthcare providers, say nearly 20% of Americans responding to a recent survey by Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting firm. Four out of 10 of those surveyed

”There is only one boss—the customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”—Sam Walton

Who gives worse customer service than airlines? Healthcare providers, say nearly 20% of Americans responding to a recent survey by Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting firm. Four out of 10 of those surveyed feel that banks give customers better service and more than half say that hotels are better at meeting a customer’s needs.

And to improve service, healthcare professionals must do more than talk about care—they must become “empathy engines.” That won’t be an easy trick, say the survey authors, because better understanding of patient needs is generally not part of healthcare reform discussions.

The negative perceptions have real consequences—25% of those surveyed say they have switched or have thought about switching physicians, hospitals, or clinics because of bad customer service experiences. More than half say they choose their doctor or hospital based on whether they think the employees understand their needs and one in four have used or thought about using a walk-in center to avoid a visit to a doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic. According to the survey team, poor customer service affects more than customer satisfaction. It also impacts the cost of healthcare, the quality of care, and the retention of skilled healthcare workers, a commodity that is becoming increasingly scarce.

Improving service can keep a lid on costs by reducing no-show appointments, lowering the number of patients who switch providers and require redundant tests as a result, and cutting back on the number of malpractice suits. Patients who get empathetic treatment from their doctors and other healthcare providers also tend to stay with them, improving the continuity and therefore the quality of care they receive. Better customer service also has a positive effect on those who give it, which translates into less provider burn-out and better retention of key employees, especially nurses, who are in significantly short supply.

This brings to mind my physician-father’s work style. Although he practiced medicine in a different age, when patients almost never disputed a doctor’s approach, he still always put his patient’s interest first. For them (if not always for his own family), he listened to and advocated for their needs—sometimes very forcefully. I guess you could say he challenged the system. And his patients knew he cared, even if he wasn’t always successful.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, doctors.

84%Percentage of American who say they have been in a hospital or clinic (as a patient or visitor) in the past three years.(Katzenbach Partners, 2008)

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