Originally published in HCPLive.com
by Ed Rabinowitz
Pump up the volume. That’s what physician practices would like to do, and it has nothing to do with louder music. An increase in patient volume is the goal of virtually every practice. Even though the economy is struggling, there are still things physicians can do to increase the foot traffic passing through the practice’s corridors. And according to Drew Stevens, PhD, a practice management consultant based in St. Louis, it starts by looking at customer service.
“Between forty-five and fifty-two percent of patient interaction revolves around customer service,” Stevens says. “So, if a physician and his or her staff are physically creating the patient experience, then that particular patient is going to become a marketing avatar for the physician.”
Step back, then communicate
Experts suggest that physicians first step back and examine the foot traffic in their waiting room. Is it volatile? Are patients not returning on a regular basis? Are you seeing fewer referrals? Then ask yourself, what am I doing to encourage foot traffic? Or more specifically, what am I doing to maintain customer contact? If the answer to most of those questions is ‘no,’ then it’s time to change the culture at your practice.
“There has to be some sort of culture definition that says, ‘This is the type of practice we want to be,’” says Barry Himmel, senior vice president at Signature Worldwide, which provides service and sales training to help improve communications. “And we might not hit all of our schedule times, and we might have to give some bad news every so often, but no one is going to complain about the service they receive here.”
Those thoughts are echoed by Norman Chideckel, MD, a board certified surgeon with the Vascular Surgery and Vein Center in New York City. He points out that until patients get to see the physician, they come in contact with many office staff members, starting with scheduling an appointment on the phone. “The office staff has to be courteous on the phone and make it a pleasant experience for the patient,” Chideckel says. “If they don’t, if they have an attitude or keep people waiting on hold, patients lose the flavor of coming in, and that carries over when they get to the office. You’ll have a much higher rate of converting new patients into long-term patients if they have a warmer feeling about coming in.”
Training and incentives
Himmel explains that just as important as determining the way you want to run your practice is making sure your staff has the skills to interact at the level you’re expecting of them. There could be a half-dozen points of contact before the patient even sees the physician. It starts with the person scheduling the appointment, then continues with someone greeting the patient when they enter the practice, escorting them to the exam room, taking their blood pressure or having blood work done. With all those points of contact, make certain that everyone can live up to the practice’s standards once they’re defined.
Next, consider an incentive-based program. Himmel says that his organization conducts approximately 15,000 mystery shops each month, and that they’re an excellent medium for building and assessing staff performance. The key, he explains, is that the program needs to be equitable. “It shouldn’t be overly complex, and it has to be easy to administer,” he says. “There has to be some sort of quantifiable measurement, or people can lose interest or get frustrated by it, or accuse you of playing favorites. And that’s not what you have in mind.”
Get out there
Stevens says that when physicians tell him they want to increase patient volume and practice revenue, he will ask them a series of questions. What have you done to be a known entity within your community? Are you serving on church boards or in the synagogue? Are you active in the local Chamber? Do you give talks in schools or universities in your area? The answers are usually ‘no.’
“What I say to them is, if there’s a way that I can increase your business by twenty percent and you not spend one dime except for gas money, would you be interested?” Stevens explains. “They say ‘yes.’ So I tell them to conduct some seminars, do some lunch and learns, and become an active member in their community. As soon as physicians start doing these little tactical things, their revenue increases without producing any additional labor.”
Himmel adds that becoming a caring component in the community is one of the most satisfying things a practice can do. And, he stresses, it can be done by the practice’s staff, as long as they’re representing the physician. “It’s a nice outreach program,” he says. “And it gets the practice’s name out there. I would imagine the easiest way to build up a practice is by referral, and it doesn’t cost very much.”
Ed Rabinowitz is a healthcare writer and reporter.
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