3 things a restaurant taught me about patient satisfaction

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took my parents to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. I was excited to go because the food is excellent and the customer service is top notch. In the past, I’d always had a great experience … until then.

That night, the restaurant was packed as they were offering half-priced desserts. My husband and I arrived first. I noticed when we ordered our appetizer that our waiter seemed to be in a hurry, but I didn’t think much of it. However, when he came back to take my parents’ order, they hesitated. As they took a moment to glance back at the menu, the waiter said, “Are you ready to order or not? I’ve got 4 other tables so I don’t have time to wait.” I was stunned. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe he just said that,” followed by, “He obviously doesn’t care if he gets a good tip.”

Fortunately, his attitude improved throughout the rest of our dinner. He did his job, and although I would never say he was friendly, he was competent. When it came time to pay the bill, my husband and I left an acceptable tip (he worked hard so we did not want to shortchange him.) However, it wasn’t the 20+% that we normally give. This got me thinking. What did this experience teach me about patient satisfaction, and what did I learn that I can share with you?

1. Patients come to us expecting to have a great experience. One reason providers distrust patient satisfaction is because they feel their patients are determined to find something to complain about. Although this may be true for a few patients, most patients enter our health care system expecting to have a great experience. They have had positive health care experiences in the past, so they see no reason why this interaction would be different. This is also how I felt. Based on my past experiences, I arrived at the restaurant expecting to have a great time.

Unfortunately, my waiter’s actions changed my perception. Instead of confirming what I felt was true, his attitude forced me to reevaluate my opinion of the restaurant. In this same way, our patients come to us believing that they will have a positive experience. Through our actions, we have the power to either confirm or destroy this belief.

2. We do have control over how our patients view us. Another reason providers distrust patient satisfaction is because they do not feel it is within their control. I have heard many providers express the belief that patients judge them based on preconceived notions that the provider is powerless to change. Again, this may be true for a few patients, but most patients are more open-minded than this.

In general, patients formulate their opinions of doctors in that moment, so we definitely have the ability to impact their views. When I walked into the restaurant, I fully expected to tip my waiter my usual amount of 20+%. However, my waiter’s negative attitude immediately changed my opinion of him. Prior to his comments, I had no problem with him. However, his words and attitude directly changed my opinion of him.  When it came time to pay the bill and evaluate his work, his tip was negatively affected.

3. Attitude is as important as competence. One final reason providers distrust patient satisfaction is because it asks us to concentrate on something besides clinical expertise. Patient satisfaction asks us to focus on how our patients feel and what they think. This is burdensome in the midst of a busy day. To be honest, I think that’s how my waiter felt. It was extremely busy and he was simply trying to make it through the day. Providing a pleasant customer experience was not his top priority. It was, however, one of mine. Don’t get me wrong … I definitely appreciate the fact that the restaurant was clean, my food was cooked properly, and that I never developed food poisoning.

However, when you think about it, those are basic expectations that every restaurant should meet. That’s how our patients feel about us. They expect all physicians to be knowledgeable and skilled, and they take this as a given. Instead, patients choose doctors based on things such as if we listen to them, spend enough time with them, and communicate in ways they can understand. These are all characteristics that patients care about. They are the fundamental principles of patient satisfaction.

In the end, I still love that restaurant and I would definitely go back again. However, if I end up having the same waiter, I hope he’s having a better day. If not, maybe I’ll slip him my card. I’m always happy to share a few customer service tips.

Trina E. Dorrah is an internal medicine physician and the author of Physician’s Guide to Surviving CGCAHPS & HCAHPS.

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