Customer service in health care: It’s coming. Are you ready?

After reading a book about conducting good business, you’ll likely review the concept of adequately meeting demands for clients or consumers. Whether a company is thriving due to lower pricing or higher quality, in the world of business, the golden rule is provide value or go bankrupt.

One industry has seemingly remained immune from this concept, however. In the past few decades, especially, health care has unequivocally failed in nearly every aspect of customer service. Long wait times, lack of eye contact, grumpy staff, lack of quality, lack of safety, lack of coordination, lack of communication, and so on. Seriously, we could do this all day. It survives despite its shameful quality because the demand for health care is very similar to that of a utility such as water, gas, or electric. People need it. The good news is, it’s all about to change.

Setting the mood

There are a few physicians ahead of the curve right now. They get it and fully understand that the industry is changing. You may call it the consumerization of health care. I call it paying attention to the entirety of a doctor’s appointment. Tom Lee, MD, CEO and founder of One Medical Group started a primary care practice in San Francisco. Dr. Lee realized quickly in his training that the current health care system was not designed for patients. He claimed it was an uninspiring, expensive system, so he set out to create a different kind of visit. One Medical Group offices are aesthetically pleasing and relaxing, not much different than a Zen garden (I may be exaggerating). His patients enjoy the luxury of getting the practitioner’s attention for as long as s/he feels necessary and wait times are nearly nonexistent. His staff smiles and the practitioners are said to love their jobs.

Compare that to your typer-talker, on-the-run doctors you’re likely used to. So, how much money does one need to put down to receive this kind of attention? An extra $150 per year added to their typical health care costs. Honestly, can you tell me you wouldn’t pay that to enjoy same-day appointments, telemedicine, online scheduling, online labs, extensive appointments and more?

Eliminating the middlemen

The coming changes in health care, whether increased use of technology or the consumerization of health care, have generally been met with skepticism by experienced physicians, and rightfully so. The growth of insurance companies, health systems, and other money making giants has been astronomical and it hasn’t exactly benefited today’s practitioners. Ironically, many who were promised efficiency by transitioning to electronic health records or less administrative work by being acquired by a larger company, now have even less time for patients and spend more time on documentation. Overhead has increased and autonomy has severely dried up. Most importantly, the physician-patient relationship has truly suffered. I’m being very nice in my description, but talk to any physician and you’re sure to get a much more colorful explanation.

Some have taken the courageous path of dropping the middlemen, such as insurance companies and Medicare, and started to take payments solely from the patient. This new model, coined direct primary care, is shaking the nation. Just as patients are willing to pay One Medical Group an extra fee for better care, they are also fully ready to eliminate paying via insurance as well. Josh Umbehr, MD of AtlasMD started his practice straight out of residency and couldn’t be happier. He charges between $50 to $100 per month for adults and $10 for children. His patients can have access to him at literally any time without worrying about co-pays or if it will be covered under their health plan.

What about emergencies? Easy. Dr. Umbehr counsels most of his patients on getting a high-deductible emergency plan to cover anything he might not be able to handle in his office. No more $1,100 ER bills for stitches (I’ve seen it happen to someone when I was in college). AtlasMD isn’t the only practice, either. MedLion, a practice run by M. Samir Qatar, MD, is rapidly expanding across the U.S. Adding to that, Brian Forrest, MD, a family physician from North Carolina, has been successful with this model for nine years.

So, whether we in health care like it or not, change is coming. The subpar service of the past is no longer going to cut it in this new health care market, and it really shouldn’t. Instead of resisting, let’s get creative. This is going to be a superb atmosphere for innovators and those who already want to change the current system. Words like “value”, “results”, and “customer satisfaction” will be just as important as dosage.

Are you ready?

William Rusnak is a family medicine resident, financial investor and writer, NueMD.  He can be reached on Twitter @RusnakMD and on Google+.

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