As competition among health care providers intensifies and patients increasingly expect the same level of customer service they receive in other industries, provider organizations are under pressure to deliver a high-quality, cost-effective and pleasant consumer experience. Some health care organizations are trying to do just that — but much more will need to be done to please today’s patient–consumers.

Sweeping changes to the health care landscape are motivating providers to prioritize the patient as a customer. For many, there is a desire to expand capacity to meet the evolving health needs of patient populations. At the same time, new entrants, such as urgent care centers and drugstores that provide health services, are creating new kinds of competition — and raising the bar for customer service in health care. Furthermore, technology is transforming how customers make buying decisions and purchase goods and services. Consumers want convenience, quality and speed, whether at the coffee shop or the doctor’s office.

Improving the customer experience

Most health care providers understand they need to provide a better customer experience, but technological, cultural and human obstacles can get in the way. One of the biggest challenges is a lack of tools to collect data, drive customer insights or manage customer relationships. Without these tools, health care organizations are challenged to provide even basic customer service, such as determining whether a patient would prefer a phone call or a text message for an appointment reminder.

At a cultural level, improving patient experience requires a shift among all employees in an organization. Think of the difference between staying at a five-star luxury resort versus a small roadside motel. At the five-star resort, every employee feels a responsibility to provide the highest level of customer service. In health care, this responsibility should extend to each employee who interacts with patients, from the physician performing a surgery to the receptionist answering a phone.

Best practices

In the future health care environment, informed patients will make decisions about where to receive care using the same criteria they use when making any other purchasing decision — quality, cost and customer experience. Health care providers wishing to deliver a memorable customer experience should adopt the following four leading practices:

Think of your customers as more than patients. Patients have lives outside of when they are admitted to or discharged from a hospital. Increasingly, leading health care organizations are looking beyond the patient to the communities they serve to understand their customers in a broader context. Customer touchpoints can then be modified to better reflect the patient population. Health requires nutrition, social engagement and other nonclinical elements. With a deeper understanding of the community, a health system can segment customers by categories ­– such as disease state or geography – and engage those customers on their own terms. For example, the health system can provide locally delivered nutritional counseling in the community.

Capture timely data and take action. The leading customer service organizations capture real-time data around customer needs and attempt to address those needs in real time. This principle can be applied to every customer touchpoint: Are patients’ rooms set at a comfortable temperature? Has the trash been removed? Do staff members greet patients warmly? In many instances, the capabilities to track these variables already exist on some level within a provider organization, but additional technology, such as a basic customer management tool, may be needed. The key to making the most of this data is to put it to use and take action, the same way retail, hospitality and other customer-centric industries do.

Take a top-down approach to shift the culture. For health care providers to make sustainable changes to the way they provide care to patients, they will need support from the highest levels of the organization. The tone needs to be set by the CEO, and customer experience needs to become a visible priority. Executive leadership should mandate the collection and analysis of data on the customer experience and then measure that experience in a very precise way. From there, health care organizations can establish programs that focus on creating an exceptional customer experience, one interaction at a time.

Be proactive. To really take customer experience to the next level, providers must proactively engage with customers at each point of interaction, much like major web retailers when they consistently make suggestions to a customer based on previous shopping habits. For example, if a patient fails to pick up a prescription, that is an opportunity for a proactive intervention by the health care provider. Technology can help track behavioral patterns and identify opportunities for proactive engagement with your customers.

A source of pride

Providing an optimal customer experience has long been a challenging goal in health care. However, as competition intensifies, and expectations from consumers who are accustomed to receiving exceptional experiences from other businesses and industries continue to rise, health care organizations must shift their thinking toward treating patients as customers.  

Additionally, a strong customer experience is a link to health care’s “quadruple aim” – which also includes strong talent retention in addition to low cost, high quality care and improvements in population health. A focus on customer experience can lead to new customers, a renewed emphasis on quality improvement, and a happier, more engaged staff with an increased level of organizational pride.  

Forward-thinking provider organizations are already recognizing the rapidly emerging importance of customer experience in a world of value-based care. It’s time for the rest of the industry to do the same.

Erik Swanson is an executive director in the Advisory Health practice at Ernst & Young LLP. He is based in Charlotte, N.C.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP.

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the policy of the American Hospital Association.