Last week, I took my wife to the local hospital for a checkup and some tests. While the day's medical news was ordinary, my customer service experience was, in my previous personal experience, remarkable. The receptionist who checked us in and took our insurance information bantered with us and got us into a lighter mood than we were in at the start of the day. After we waited for a half-hour or so—around what I expected—the nurse who took my wife in for the day's events asked for my cell phone number, promised to call 20 to 30 minutes before the test over, and gave me a ballpark time of arrival. I left the hospital, walked around the surrounding neighborhood, and grabbed some breakfast. As promised, I got a call about two hours later from another nurse, who said my wife would be ready in about 20 minutes. When I got back, another nurse pulled me aside, gave me a quick yet informative clinical update and told me where to wait for my wife.

This is the sort of customer-focused experience I'd expect at say, a nice restaurant or maybe even my mechanic or dry cleaner—an emphasis on my convenience and time, friendly customer service and regular updates. But in health care, while good customer service is often provided, it simply isn't an expectation I've historically had. Instead, I usually gird myself for long waits and often opaque or fragmented communication from clinicians and other staff. Certainly, I don't expect nurses to call me 30 minutes before my loved one's procedure is over, as if I was ordering pizza or picking up my dry cleaning.

Outside of the positive feeling these experiences left me with on an otherwise uncertain day, coordinated customer service leaves the general impression of coordinated patient care. Conversely, my own recent trips to another nearby health care facility, which have been characterized by long waits and difficulty extracting information, left a more chaotic impression.

I do wonder if some of this is generational, and as it happens, my colleague, Bill Santamour, recently wrote about a Thomson Reuters survey detailing the rising expectations of Gen-Xers for customer service and timely appointments, and their willingness to switch providers over wait times and staff interactions. At the other end of the spectrum, baby boomers and the Silent Generation are still likely to stick with physicians and hospitals and be more concerned with reputation and proximity to their homes.

If that is the case, then the next couple of decades will be an interesting period for providers used to lifelong patient loyalty and marketing via reputation and location. If trends continue, having a staff that's as friendly and adaptive as you would expect from a hotel or resort is going to move from a pleasant anomaly—like my trip to the hospital last week—to a patient expectation for every encounter.