The blurry line between patient care and customer service

Newsman John Stossel’s treatment for lung cancer has prompted him to write about the care he’s received while hospitalized.

Consider how many patient surveys are returned with comments like this: My medical care is excellent, but the customer service stinks.

Fox News reporter John Stossel headlined a post he crafted Thursday with this exact sentiment. The 69-year-old journalist—a non-smoker—revealed he is being treated for lung cancer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Stossel said:

“U.S. News and World Report ranked it No. 1 in New York. I get excellent medical care here. But as a consumer reporter, I have to say, the hospital’s customer service stinks. Doctors keep me waiting for hours, and no one bothers to call or email to say, ‘I’m running late.’ Few doctors give out their email address. Patients can’t communicate using modern technology.”

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Some in the health care profession might argue that Stossel isn’t being realistic about emails. Still, he’s certainly not the first to gripe about lousy communication and waiting times for information that arrives piecemeal, or not at all.

A post in The Atlantic last year addressed the issue that Stossel said is based on bureaucracy and not the human factor:

“When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.”

The telehealth conundrum

A survey from HealthMine last month found that despite the potential benefits of telemedicine, many Americans still prefer traditional, in-person provider visits. More than 40 percent of respondents who haven’t used telehealth say they favor an office visit with their doctor. Its press release reads, in part, “More than a quarter of consumers simply don’t know when it is appropriate to use telemedicine versus traditional medicine.”

Is it realistic to think clinicians and communicators can move away from the “patient engagement” mindset and focus on patients as customers, similar to that approach by successful businesses?

Stossel mentions this point in his opus as well: “Instead of answering to consumers, which forces businesses to be nimble, hospitals report to government, lawyers and insurance companies.”

Sara Heath wrote on PatientEngagementHIT.com:

“In an industry that is quickly becoming consumed with the use of technology, forging meaningful relationships between patient and provider can be tricky. By following [these] best practices for provider communication, physicians can help boost not only patient satisfaction, but clinical outcomes as well.”

Heath cited a study concluding that a better understanding of patient and provider behaviors will bolster provider communication and shared decision-making. Of course, digital communication plays a significant role in outreach and community building:

“Social media holds more opportunities than just advancing an organization’s brand and marketing strategies; it can also do a lot to help boost patient engagement. Between offering avenues for patient-provider communication and boosting patient satisfaction, social media is poised to be the next big thing in patient engagement. Leveraging platforms like Twitter and Facebook can help providers increase their overall presence with their patients, in turn promoting better engagement with their care.”

According to the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society:

“Every physician has a community, a constituency. More than this, each physician as a point of view. Beyond the 15-minute or less visit, physicians can highlight the reasons why taking medication as prescribed is essential. They can raise consumer awareness about healthy habits. Physicians are called to serve their community through their insights delivered in a blog post, video or other mediums.”

What is the bottom line, communicators? Patient engagement or customer service? Where do the gaps and the overlaps lie?

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