How are your computer and people skills?

Health care workers may need retraining

A report that looks into the future of health care predicts that health care workers will need to be retrained to meet the demands of technology and empowered patients, and hospitals will be ill-prepared for the surge in consumerism.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional services organization based in Cambridge, MA, surveyed and interviewed more than 400 "thought-leaders" and health care executives in the United States, Europe, Canada, and the Pacific Rim to determine the factors shaping the future of health care. Those surveyed included top executives from hospital systems, physician groups, insurers, government, employers, and medical supply vendors.

The report, HealthCast 2010: Smaller World, Bigger Expectations, finds that respondents expect consumerism to be one factor disrupting the way U.S. health care is provided and paid for in the 21st century. The consumerism results from patients who are making more of their own health care decisions.

First, patients are becoming more educated about health care through information on the Internet. Second, they are looking for ways to maximize their dollars since they are spending more of their own money for treatment. (See Hospital Payment & Information Management, March 2000, pp. 33-37.)

"The 2010 consumer will demand speedy, customized health care and will frequently turn to the Internet or other intermediaries to sift through or even broker these needs," says Sandy Lutz, national health industry analyst and author of the HealthCast 2010 report. (For more about the report, see story, p. 60.)

The report also found that respondents are concerned that hospitals and insurers are unprepared for the coming surge in consumerism. Only 25% of those surveyed by Pricewaterhouse thought hospitals were prepared, and only 14% thought insurers were prepared to deal with empowered consumers.

Hospitals must deal with the increasing technology demands of e-business, too. If patients could communicate with physicians or be monitored through the Internet, more than 20% of in-office visits could be eliminated, according to respondents in the HealthCast 2010 survey. In addition, respondents said they generally felt that more than 30% of physicians’ time will be spent using Web-based tools by 2010.

One reason respondents say hospitals are unprepared for the demands of consumerism and technology is the facilities’ traditional view of the mission of health care. This view focuses on providing excellent patient care.

Now patient care is not the only consideration for the empowered consumer. "What’s difficult for [providers] to understand is that patients are also customers who can vote with their feet," explains Sandor Blum, PhD, director of Price-waterhouseCoopers’ Healthcare Workforce Effectiveness Practice in Boston.

"The patients can make a choice. They can compare health care networks, health care systems, HMOs, and providers and make choices and not be such a captive to the kind of caring empathy that typically characterizes the traditional form of health care," says Blum.

"There is a feeling that the health care system has been focused around the practitioners, and not so much around the patients," Lutz says.

Traditionally, patients assumed the competency of a medical professional just as they would assume the competency of an airline pilot, Blum says. But they may base their opinions about health care facilities on factors such as the attitude of the people who are taking care of them throughout their stay in the hospital or the ease in which they get from one place to another.

Meeting the empowered patient’s expectations can require a change in the mindset of many health care workers. "The traditional health care work force will need to be trained in looking at customer service as everyone’s job," Blum says. "They all are going to have to think about creating a climate of overall hospitality that is better than the competitor’s."

Hospitals still need to focus on providing excellent patient care, but they also need to need to train their workers to see what customers need and want. He says hospitals can do this in two ways:

Teach employees basic skills of effective listening and communication.

"Workers listen when patients complain about their pain, but they may not have the listening skills to recognize when a patient is frustrated from having to sign so many forms or from taking a long time to get from one part of the hospital to another," Blum says. "Everyone is busy doing great clinical care, but no one is thinking of the patient as a customer."

Train employees in the operational details of customer service.

"Look at exit data," Blum says. "Why do people leave?" Also, do critical incident analysis and learn service recovery strategies. "These are the operational things you have to do to achieve high levels of customer service. The key issue there is moving from pure patient-centered satisfaction to overall customer satisfaction."

Unfortunately, customer service concerns won’t be the only pressure placed on health care workers. They will have to be much more computer literate and flexible in their job duties.

"Employees are going to have to be good at doing two things that are critical in a technology environment and in a health care environment," he says. This advice will sound familiar to health information management personnel, he notes. "One is managing vast amounts of clinical and financial information, and then inputting and making the information usable. The second is transmitting that information to many different sources both within the health system and outside the health system."

That information intensity is going to be critical in the future of the health care world, Blum says. "Everyone is going to have to step up to the plate and develop technology skills they may not currently have." The health care workers of the future also are going to need to become capable of handling multiple tasks. "They are going to have to do more with less and work effectively across departments," Blum says.

Employees such as those in the HIM department will need to be willing to deal with customers who are outside the hospital system. "The HMOs and the community are going to want to be part of the storyline. Employees will have to be flexible, adaptive to change, and able to work well in cross-functional teams."

If hospital personnel lack either customer service or computer skills, should hospitals hang out the "Help Wanted" sign? They should invest in their current employees first, Lutz says.

"Hospitals’ best bet is to retrain the workers they have. By doing that, they create a partnership with that work force, and don’t have to hire people on the open market during a tight labor time."

The HealthCast 2010 report makes several recommendations for preparing employees to adapt to technology and empowered patients:

• Use Web-based and computer-based training tools.

• Provide incentives to become multiskilled.

• Use flexible, competency-based compensation.

• Use technology to attract new staff.

• Design user acceptance into new systems integration efforts.

• Identify and mentor future leaders from the professions.

"Make your organization a service culture that rewards people for service and for class training and for working together as a team," Lutz says.