In health care: It’s not a customer service problem. It’s communication.

Over the past year, I’ve read countless publications concerning the relationship of customer service and patient care. Many have alluded to the fact that customer service in health care is not only unfeasible, but also detrimental to patient care. As a huge proponent of customer service, it was quite natural to take a defensive stand, posturing against these “absurd accusations.” Over the years I’ve learned, quite often the hard way, that natural, spontaneous responses, although with honorable intentions, often lead to more confusion and conflict. I elected the mature and enlightening response of stepping back from the situation and listening and investigating the topic at hand. What did I learn? That I totally agree with these guys.

I agree that the average consumer whether in health care or retail has his or her own set of standards. It’s absurd to cater to all requests when in health care in the same fashion as a car dealership or gourmet restaurant. I agree that this could result in detrimental health care. Giving antibiotics and performing invasive tests simply because “it’s what the patient wants” is ridiculous.

So I’m currently a staunch supporter of the arguments by these credited publications and professionals, agreeing whole-heartedly. But this is where our paths take a monumentally different course. It’s in the definition of customer service. It’s so different that maybe we should use an entirely new term. It’s like comparing an apple and the moon.

In retail, customer service is “the consumer is always right,” while in health care it should be “I spent ample time with each patient, treating them with respect and courtesy.” Customer service in health care hinges on communication with the patient concerning diagnosis, medical concerns, and the risks and benefits of procedures at hand. I would go as far to say that customer service is not giving the unneeded narcotic or antibiotic. That would actually be customer disservice.

Good customer service would be spending more time with the patient, describing in detail the risk of bacterial resistance when antibiotics are overprescribed or the addictive nature of narcotics when used inappropriately. But this would take more time with your patients. It’s naïve to just assume that a properly informed patient will give a poor rating to an institution or provider because every initial request was not catered to. I think that the informed patient would be more complimentary and satisfied with care. It’s quite ridiculous to assume that an informed patient expects Disney World treatment or has the McDonald’s mentality when at the local clinic or emergency department.

What’s the answer to this dilemma? I suggest it’s not posturing by providers but rather an embracement followed by better patient communication. As a patient, it’s what I would expect.

In health care, maybe we should use another term besides “customer service” to describe courtesy, respect, and good provider-patient communication. Call it common sense or call it the way medicine should be practiced.  I call it the right thing for patients.

Jeffrey McWilliams is an emergency physician who blogs at Advocates Of Excellence.

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