The service economy has finally come to medicine: Are you ready?

Viewing patients as customers

The customer is always right. Taking back a dress you bought a year ago? No problem. Complaining about your meal? It’s on the house. Tired of being put on hold at the doctor? Tough luck.

Wait a minute — that last item sounds wrong. And finally, the medical profession is starting to understand that providing good service is the best way to market your practice.

"Marketing and advertising are still considered lowbrow by this profession," says Stan Joseph, president of Cowan & Joseph, a medical consulting firm in Atlanta. "Doctors still think that what their peers think is more important than what customers think."

Until recently, patients have played into that, says Joseph. "Customers asked three things: Will you see me today?’ Will you file my insurance claim?’ and Is parking free?’" he explains. "Patients always assumed doctors knew what they was doing. So now, they are starting to relate their service needs to how the front-end staff perform."

That makes ensuring good service even more important, Joseph adds.

"When a provider’s behavior matches or exceeds patient expectations, the direct result is a competitive advantage for the provider," says Preston Ribnick, president of Professional Resources in South Wellfleet, MA.

"Even practices that have embraced marketing call good service a "basic requirement," explains Vance Chunn, MHA, FACHE, executive director of Cardiology Associates in Mobile, AL. His 13-physician operation has five main locations and seven satellites.

Marketing is so important to the practice that it has a full-time marketing director on staff, and Chunn says staff have come up with some innovative marketing ideas that have received attention from referring physicians, patients, and payers.

So how can you ensure your practice delivers good service? There are a myriad of ways, including "mystery shopping," which involves having someone call your practice posing as a potential new patient and ranking your staff’s telephone performance and ability to answer simple questions. (See related story, below.)

Once you have the patients, you can perform periodic satisfaction surveys to better understand from the patient perspective of what your strengths and weaknesses are. (See related story, p. 35.)

Chunn sums it up like this: "Without a good service to promote, you are dead in the water. It almost goes without saying that service is the starting point."

(Editor’s note: For more innovative marketing ideas, see next month’s Physician’s Marketing & Management.)