“The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient”. Although they were uttered nearly a century ago, these words are truer today than they have ever been. With the recent sweeping changes to the healthcare industry, physicians and their practices are struggling just to maintain their current levels, let alone grow. Declining reimbursements from Medicare and private insurers mean that providing the highest level of care to your patients so that they don’t leave should be your highest priority. The last thing you can do is lose your existing patients.
Yet even with these difficult times, I still see physicians and their staffs forgetting that they are treating patients and not diseases. The patient-doctor bond is one that is built on trust, comfort, and education. Because of changes in insurance or relocation out of your area, patients are more likely to leave a medical practice than at any other time. Here are ten reasons why patients leave a medical practice and how to avoid it.
1. NEGLECTING PATIENT PHONE CALLS
Having a nurse or other service work as an extension of yourself to return calls is common policy among practices, but patients usually want to speak directly with their physicians, especially when it is a serious situation. Patients look to their physicians for strength and security in difficult times, and will often leave a practice if they do not feel their doctor cares enough to return calls. It is understandable that you cannot interrupt your patient flow just to return a call. Your patients will understand this, but there is no excuse for letting days pass before you return a patient’s call about abnormal test results or to help relieve anxiety about a pending surgery or treatment. Taking the time to personally consult them and assure that everything will be fine strengthens the bond between the two of you.
2. TAKING YOUR PATIENTS “FOR GRANTED”
I have worked with over 1,000 physicians in my years, and I am always amazed at the number of times I have heard “my patients don’t mind waiting for me, regardless of how long they have to wait”. This attitude and the failure to return phone calls creates the perception that you don’t care. You cannot forget that your patients need treatment, and they are looking to you for help. You are providing a service. How would you feel if you had to wait on someone that long? Your clients have plenty of options, and the more you treat them as if you don’t care, the quicker they will leave your practice.
3. OFFICE DELAYS
Delays are a fact of life, especially in practicing medicine, but do you do your best to work with the patients that will be affected by the delay? When there is a delay in your office (emergency, seriously ill patient, power failure, etc.), do you have your staff:
- Tell the patients in the waiting room about it?
- If it will be an extensive delay, do you give the option to reschedule?
- Does your staff call patients scheduled for later in the day and explain the delay to them with an option to reschedule?
Nearly all patients will understand a delay for an emergency or other reasons, but they appreciate it when you work with them to make good on the deal.
4. DELAYS AND DISHONESTY!
Continuing from #3 with delays, one of the biggest mistakes that I have seen is trying to trick patients into believing their isn’t one. Don’t try to mask it with excuses or by moving patients to an exam room, then making them wait for you in there longer than usual. You might fool some people, but certainly not the patient waiting. Patients will quickly leave your practice if they think you are neglecting them and not being honest.
5. SCHEDULING TEMPLATES
Scheduling templates are a must in the healthcare industry, but the wrong template can cost you dearly. Optimizing your patient scheduling system will make it easier for your clients to get the times they want, and help you maximize volume throughout the day. You need to strike the balance between a schedule that works for your patients and physicians at the practice. The wrong template can create delays and overburden physicians. Not everyone works at the same pace, and it could seem unfair to more productive physicians to see more patients. I reccomend working a productivity compenent into your scheduling and getting a consultant to help maximize your efficiency. You can avoid patients leaving your practice by helping them get the times that they want and keeping your physicians happy.
6. CHECK-IN AND CHECK-OUT
Your front desk is the face of your practice. They are the first people the patient sees on the way in and the last they see on the way out, and this makes them integral to your success. They act as your “de facto” marketing department, so the right one will make customers feel warm and welcome, and the wrong one will create a glass wall that only adds to the anxiety of the visit. These staff members set the tone for the entire visit. You need to set things off on the right foot. Make sure that your staff are:
- Professional in collecting money
- Happy to set new appointment times
- And capable of remembering patients names and faces
Greeting a patient coming in and helping them leave is the perfect bookend to a pleasant visit.
7. OFFICE HOURS
Your patients are busy people, and while they are certainly willing to make some sacrifices, you must be aware that they have busy work and family schedules. I’ve seen a lot of patients coming to my practice because of my flexible hours. Do you offer early mornings, evenings, or weekends? Patients who can’t get the times that they want will leave your practice instantly. You can avoid this by making some sacrifices on your end and having more flexible hours.
8. OFFICE APPEARANCE
Walk through any museum or art gallery, and you will notice how much attention is paid to the appearance of the displays. This is because they understand the importance of presentation when trying to frame an experience. Imagine being your patient: you are sitting inside the exam room when the doctor walks in dressed in his favorite band’s t-shirt and a pair of jeans. How would you feel? Presentation is everything, and appearances matter just as much in the healthcare world as any other. Is your facility clean, modern, and comforting or is it dirty, out-dated, and reminiscent of a centuries-old hospital? Every penny that you spend updating is well worth it. Don’t have the funds? Ask me. I have helped many colleagues in similar situations.
9. CUSTOMER SERVICE
Don’t be fooled by its placement on this list. Customer service is perhaps the most important factor in any industry, especially in one where patients have a lot of options. Caring for a patient is about more than just knowledge and technique, you need to provide a great service as well. This goes for all facets of your practice and every stage of the customer experience. For example:
- The first phone call: is the person on the other end professional, informed, flexible, willing to “go the extra mile” to schedule a visit or answer a question?
- The front desk: are they professional, congenial, and empathetic?
- The clinical staff: are they professional, knowledgeable, and empathetic?
- The physician or extender: do they put the patient at ease? Are they friendly, knowledgeable and caring? Do they offer extra advice and personalized recommendations?
- Billing department: are they professional, willing to work with the patient to resolve outstanding balances or correct billing errors? Are they non-confrontational?
Customer service is about more than being flexible and smiling. You need to make sure that you dedicate yourself to the patient every step of the way.
Dealing with someone’s health is a delicate situation, and nobody likes to think that they are getting sub-par attention at a medical practice because of money. Even though you certainly aren’t sacrificing their care because of a financial situation, your patients might feel that way. The last thing you want to do is have your staff start an argument over bills, and you certainly don’t want them to have their insurance or financial situation become a point of contention between the two of you. This will cause patients to leave your practice instantly.
There are straightforward solutions, namely:
- Improve office professionalism
- Improve office communication
- Improve office access
- Improve office courtesy
- Show empathy and work with patients on bills
I would recommend training by an outside party or parties, not a “do-it-yourself” type program. The ROI on your investment will be immeasurable!
As a medical practitioner or clinic, you need to realize that the landscape has changed, and patients are leaving practices now more than ever. In order to grow, you need to practice the highest level of patient care. That means treating the whole patient and not their sickness or insurance company. These are the ten reasons that patients leave a medical practice and how to avoid it. If you treat a patient well, they will tell their family, friends, and colleagues, meaning you will experience immense organic growth. The key to success in today’s healthcare world is in caring for your patients, so avoid these customer care mistakes.