Happy patients used as consultants at hospital

If your restructuring does result in dissatisfied patients, don’t fret, say experts who measure satisfaction within the health care industry.

Turn those patients into your re-engineering consultants.

"Complaining customers are the best consultants, and they don’t cost a cent. Draw out complaints, investigate them, make changes, then report back to the customer," says Anne-Marie Nelson, vice president of The HSM Group, a consulting firm in Scottsdale, AZ. She is the lead author of the recently published Improving Patient Satisfaction Now: How to Earn Patient and Payer Loyalty.

She says by encouraging your patients to complain, then taking advantage of complaints, you will not only improve your operation, you can also turn a dissatisfied patient into a happy, loyal one — a patient who will promote your facility.

To turn your patients into consultants and develop their loyalty, look at your satisfaction surveys. Any category marked less than excellent should be targeted for improvement.

Research shows that even if patients rate their satisfaction with a hospital as "good" or "very good," that does not mean they will come back in the future.

"Satisfaction rating scales indicate a state of mind, like, ‘I feel this way about my stay.’ Loyalty indicates a behavior," Nelson says. "A patient can feel satisfied with the service at a hospital but not necessarily act upon that feeling down the road in terms of returning or recommending the hospital to a friend."

PacifiCare of California, a managed care organization in Cypress is one such organization that only focuses on negative patient comments.

"We measure satisfaction with our health plan, but when it comes time to compile reports on the survey data, we choose to look at dissatisfaction," says Bill Beyer, coordinator of the "Art of Caring" program at PacifiCare.

"We believe that dissatisfaction really shows us what needs to be fixed. Rather than be content that 80% of our patients are satisfied, we should be uncomfortable that 20% of our patients are not," he explains.

The key to creating these loyal patients is "continual communications," Nelson says. "An organization or provider needs to understand what customers need all the time."

Here, Nelson explains several tactics:

Acknowledge complaints.

You can make a positive out of a negative by acknowledging the complaint, making appropriate changes, and following up with the dissatisfied patient.

"When an organization calls a customer to say that his or her complaint was acted upon, that customer almost always becomes an ambassador for the organization," Nelson explains.

Ask patients specific questions about satisfaction with service.

"Ask them open-ended questions, such as, ‘What three things would you like to see improved?’ and ‘What three things did you like the best?’" Nelson says.

Empower Staff.

Employees should be empowered to fix things for a patient. That is service recovery on the very first level — and it makes for happier employees.

Hospitals deal with several types of customers, each having distinct needs. "They have patients, health plans, physicians, regulatory bodies, and employees to delight. It is a juggling act," Nelson explains. "Too often, people on the front line are the lowest paid. They are not trained in customer service or what it means to go beyond expectations. They don’t know how to deal with difficult situations, such as someone complaining. Those employees probably have the lowest job satisfaction, yet they wield tremendous influence on patients."