Customer service key to patient satisfaction

Respond to complaints, utilize survey trends

Anyone who works in retail knows that customer satisfaction is the key to repeat business, leading to a more successful financial future.

Customer satisfaction also is just as important to a home health agency's successful future, according to home health managers who have focused on improving their own agencies' patient satisfaction programs.

A continuous staff education awareness program, inservices to better prepare staff members to handle complaints from patients, and hiring the right staff members for the job all contributed to the Press Ganey Compass Award won by Mercy Homecare in Cadillac, MI, for a significant improvement in patient satisfaction scores, says Maureen Hayes, RN, professional service manager of the agency.

"All staff members worked together to make customer service a part of our agency's culture," explains Hayes. "Customer service became a part of every meeting's agenda, all new employee orientations, and inservices that were designed to help employees address patient's individual concerns," she says.

Because staff morale affects the level of customer service you can provide, some processes and staff positions were restructured to better use staff members' talents, says Hayes. "We focused on hiring the right people for each job, whether it was a case manager or a physical therapist," she says. "By making sure the employee is handling a job for which he or she is best prepared, we improved everyone's enthusiasm because no one felt like they were overwhelmed or forced to cover for someone else," she says.

After reviewing patient concerns on satisfactions surveys, Hayes' agency discovered a trend in dissatisfaction with physical therapist availability. "We added physical therapists to our staff to better meet patients' needs and satisfaction scores for that service increased," she says.

While patient satisfaction scores and comments are discussed at all staff meetings, and posted for all staff members to read, Mercy Homecare emphasizes the importance of customer service by developing customer service competencies that must be met for each position.

Along with spelling out what customer service activities each person must demonstrate in their job, inservices that teach each staff member how to handle complaints were also developed, says Hayes. "We teach everyone how to accept the complaint and listen carefully, then we tell him or her how to refer the complaint for resolution," she adds.

Mercy Homecare's process spells out the staff members' responsibility to report a complaint to a supervisor, case manager or other appropriate staff member to make sure the complaint is not ignored or lost in a shuffle of paperwork, says Hayes. "We make it clear that reporting a complaint is an important part of providing care to that patient," she adds. "We don't make it a punitive process, we make it a learning process," she says.

High return rate means accurate data

When reviewing your patients' satisfaction with your service, the real challenge is to make sure you get a good return rate on your surveys, says Karen Marshall Thompson, RN, MS, administrator of Southern Ohio Medical Center Home Health Services in Portsmouth. "You need at least a 25% return rate to ensure reliable data," she says. "We increased our return rate by addressing the survey to a specific person," she explains. While it does take a little extra effort to personalize each letter with a survey, return rates do go up because patients like the personal touch and it doesn't make them feel like they are just part of a mass mailing, she explains.

Another simple way to increase survey return rates is to make sure that you have the patient's correct address, Thompson points out. "We often get their primary address for insurance purposes, but sometimes a patient might stay with family members during the home health episode or they might move during or immediately after we provide care," she explains. "All of our nurses know to communicate with the business office so that surveys will be mailed to the correct location," she adds.

"Keep your survey short," suggests Thompson. "We have a one-page survey that is succinct and easy to complete, and we include a postage-paid return envelope," she says. By keeping it simple, you further increase the chances the survey will be returned, she explains.

Once you get the surveys back in your office, look for trends in order to prioritize areas you need to improve, recommends Thompson. "People are generally satisfied with home health care but we are always looking for ways to improve because we are in a very competitive market," she says.

"Our patients think that their ability to reach us 24 hours each day is very important and when we noticed some ratings in this area that were not as high as we wanted, we looked at how we handled evenings and weekends," says Thompson. "We had always used an outside answering service for on-call and we tried a number of different services but we always had problems with missed calls or delays in getting messages to nurses," she says.

Thompson found the answer to her on-call answering service dilemma with her hospital's switchboard. "We analyzed the number of calls we actually received on weekends and evenings and we showed that the extra number of calls for the home health nurses would not result in a need for more switchboard operators and would not affect the operators' ability to handle hospital calls," she says. "Our home health phone line now rolls over to the hospital switchboard operator after-hours and the operator will take messages and page nurses," she explains.

"We discovered that the hospital switchboard operators were perfect for this task because they are trained for customer service, they are accustomed to anxious callers, they know how to stay calm, and they are used to paging people," explains Thompson. "Our patients and our nurses are very happy with this change, which did improve our ability to respond to patients 24 hours a day," she adds.

At Mercy Homecare, patient satisfaction has improved because customer service has become an integral part of the agency's culture, says Hayes. The change didn't happen overnight but it can be accomplished, she says. "Just keep talking about customer service, don't make it a once a year topic for a meeting, make customer service a standing agenda item for every meeting that occurs in the agency."