Consumers have a voice in this medical group

Advisory panel ensures patient perspective

Getting the patient perspective means more to Hill Physicians Medical Group in San Ramon, CA, than asking questions on a survey or gathering an occasional focus group.

Hill Physicians has formed a consumer advisory panel with patients and patient/employer representatives. The panel, which meets quarterly, gives input on everything from the design of a new newsletter to the method of conducting patient satisfaction surveys.

Soliciting consumer opinions about possible business decisions is nothing new in other consumer-oriented industries. But it is a rarity in health care.

"We saw the consumer advisory group as a way to validate some of the things we thought were really important [to consumers] and to test new business strategies," says Rosaleen Derington, vice president of corporate services at Hill Physicians.

Good food, lively talk

The dinner meetings evolve into lively discussions, a form of input that is far removed from the cold statistics of patient satisfaction rankings. While the surveys provide a barometer of how patients feel about their experiences, the panel offers immediate feedback, notes Derington.

"You’re getting emotion; you’re getting passion; you’re getting people who are excited — or not — about topics," she says.

"It’s real-live people you’re interacting with," she says. "You have a responsibility to give feedback and take seriously what they say and see what can be done to try to effect change."

Hill Physicians formed the panel with representatives of some of its major customers — health care purchasers such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and Chevron. But the medical group also opened it up to interested patients. The panel includes a woman with four children who have significant health needs, and a retiree.

"The board is made up of people with a lot of different perspectives," notes panel member Diane Johnston, managing partner of Kenzler & Associates in Alamo, CA, a consulting firm that specializes in customer contact. "It’s a very robust cross-section of people."

Creation of the panel follows the general advice that Johnston gives medical groups and other consumer-oriented businesses: "Anything you can do to better understand your customers — both internal and external — in advance of a problem, puts you light-years ahead of your competition.

"People moving in and out of programs is very costly," says Johnston. "The idea is to get a customer, treat him very well, and to leverage off the experience. The only way that’s done is to look at ways to continually improve your interaction with them."

Including physicians on such a panel is also very important, says Johnston. "We don’t [usually] hear the voice of all these different customers," she says.

Patient newsletter, survey on agenda

Every meeting has an agenda and a two-hour time frame. Derington tries to run a tight meeting so the participation doesn’t become burdensome to members.

"We try to do some ongoing education," she says. "If there’s anything unique happening in our business, we send them articles and newsletters. We try not to overwhelm them but to send them information to think about and mull over."

For example, Derington previewed a new medical group newsletter with the panel. "We spent an hour asking them, What did you think of the materials? Would it get past the trash can and into your house? Do you find it to be of value? What are topics you would like to address?’" she recalls.

"We’re trying the best that we can to put knowledge in their hands and let them be a vital part of the decision-making process," she says.

The medical group also asked the panel about patient satisfaction surveys and discovered that the consumers greatly preferred mailed rather than on-site surveys. "There was a lot of dialogue about the different options," recalls Johnston.

Panel members also air their feelings, positive and negative, about their experiences in the office. They want a smoother, even seamless visit, with greater efficiency and less confusion about coordination of the care and insurance issues, says Derington.

Everyone’s time is important

"We heard about the doctor’s timeliness," she says. "They are important people, too, and they can’t be sitting around for 20 or 30 minutes when the doctor is late."

The panel has met only three times, but it has found its place in the medical group. "It’s already forming into a partnership," says Derington. "The consumers bring something to the table. The management brings something else. That partnership needs to stay strong."

Now that consumers have a voice in the inner workings of the medical group, they seem to have no lack of topics. "I think we’ll have a long agenda for years to come," says Derington.