Hope for customer service in health care?

Image by Flickr user Jerry Bunkers

MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Earlier this year I wrote a columnabout the sorry state of customer service in medical care. But recently I had the pleasure (how often can you use that word in the context of health care?) of being treated, literally, to a striking exception.

Last week I was getting ready for a business trip to Asia and got a sore throat the day before leaving. Preferring not to go without antibiotics if I needed them -- or worse, wind up needing medical care in China or Vietnam -- I stopped, without an appointment, into a nearby Immediate Care facility (division of TeamHealth holdings, NYSE: TMH). The company is one of a growing number of chains providing an alternative to emergency room visits and a range of other common outpatient services, from sniffles to stitches, fever to fractures, and more. But unlike any typical ER, it provides these services with as much of a focus on the patient/customer experience as on quality medical care.

Immediate Care promises minimal wait times, immaculate facilities and pleasant, compassionate people, and during my visit they delivered flawlessly. The building looked more like a day spa than a doctor's office. I was checked in quickly and efficiently and seen within 20 minutes, and every person I dealt with -- from the front desk to the clinicians -- was smiling and unfailingly courteous, attentive and caring.

I was so impressed by the experience that I contacted the corporate office to learn more. In keeping with the company's name and ethic, I got an immediate response. Salvatore Durante, the company's Urgent Care Operations manager, gave me a five-point summary of what makes the business tick. Interestingly -- but not surprisingly -- it's all about humans as beings, not bodies:

Mission: "Our overall imperative is patient satisfaction, and that guides everything we do from the moment someone walks in our doors."

People: "During the recruitment process we look for people with qualities that are aligned with our commitment to customer service and patient satisfaction -- we know what to look for, and only hire people who have 'it'".

Culture and attitude: "Empathy [my own favorite customer service word]. From our CEO to physicians and registration staff, our culture is one of genuine compassion. We only employ people who care -- so much so that some even have a 'following' of patients who ask for them by name. Our culture revolves around relationships, and ensuring that the care we provide our patients reflects that ethic."

Execution: "We have a very specific, customer-focused process we call 'AIDET': Acknowledge the patient quickly and courteously, Introduce yourself immediately with your name and title, Duration -- tell the patient how long he or she can expect the visit to take, Explain simply yet completely what to expect, what the outcome might be, etc., and Thank the patient for choosing our service."

Measurement and evaluation: "Our overall patient satisfaction rate is 95%. Each site reports any negative comments/complaints directly to me and our CEO, and senior management quickly and personally follows up with all dissatisfied patients. One of the most interesting and telling statistics is that, though our service is primarily 'episodic,' 50 percent of our patients return for other medical needs. We also have performance-based bonuses based in part on patient satisfaction rates and customer resolutions."

Granted, Immediate Care and its competitors offer a limited menu of services and are not the place to go in dire circumstances or for major medical issues. They also charge "retail" for uninsured patients (though they do accept most major coverage and copays, as they did in my case). One could argue -- and I'm sure plenty will -- that by not having to deal with many of the extraordinary complexities of the traditional health care system, it's easier for companies like these to do what they do. Perhaps, but that's not really the point. The point is that this company was founded by physicians who realized that not every pill had to be bitter, and that at least some of the mold could be broken; that for most routine medical needs, excellence in clinical care doesn't have to come at the expense of excellence in customer care.

Clearly and unfortunately, it would be unrealistic and naive to expect the broader health care industry -- with its enormous and increasing challenges -- to replicate this model any time soon. But if you believe, as I do, that business complexities and operational challenges should not be allowed to get in the way of quality interactions between human beings, then maybe at least a little of what these progressive medical service providers are doing will become contagious.

Related reading:

Is kindness a realistic customer service strategy?
How consistency touches every area of your business
The 6 best words in customer service

Image by Flicker CC user Jerry Bunkers

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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.