10 tips to improving patient satisfaction

Many medical groups, regardless of size, struggle to satisfy patients. Yet there basic tactics will go a long way toward accomplishing that. 

Joan Hablutzel, senior industry analyst with the Medical Group Management Association, told attendees at the MGMA 2014 annual conference Monday that increasing patient satisfaction was challenging, but necessary to the success of a medical practice in an increasingly competitive healthcare marketplace. 

"Identify low patient satisfaction scores and work as a team to design, implement and maintain solutions," she said. "But focus on the patients, not the scores."

Setting standards for customer service is essential to improving patient satisfaction, Hablutzel noted. The standards may be simple, but can transform the way in which staff interact with patients, as well as boost patient perception of the practice.

Hablutzel walked MGMA 2014 attendees through 30 steps to increasing patient satisfaction, but emphasized that there are actually 10 "top" standards on which practice staff should focus. Here they are: 

1. Smile and say 'hello' when patients arrive. This seems basic, but may be overlooked in many cases, if it is not established as an expectation of all staff. "Everyone likes to be acknowledged," Hablutzel noted.

2. Answer the telephone in three rings with a consistent greeting. And "no blind transfers," Hablutzel said.

3. Use the patient's name at least once during each conversation. Calling a patient by name emphasizes that the practice views them as an individual, not simply another generic patient, Hablutzel said. Of course, calling a patient by name must be done only when and where appropriate, so as not to violate confidentiality.

4. Observe the patient's communication style. And respond in a manner that will make the patient feel comfortable. Empathy is critical. It affirms to the patient that you are listening, and care about what she has to say.

5. Explain to the patient what is going to happen next. It might be the patient's first time at the practice, or the first time for a particular procedure. As Hablutzel says, "forewarned is forearmed."

6. Listen to the patient without interrupting them. Hablutzel says practice staff can often learn more from listening to patients than from asking questions. "Silence is okay," she said.

7. Look for cues that may indicate that the patient is not satisfied. Be proactive in responding to situations. If a patient has a problem or complaint, answering 'I don't know' is not acceptable. Find someone who can answer a patient's question.

8. Respect patient confidentiality at all times. "HIPAA is for real," Hablutzel said. Many, if not most, topics surrounding a patient's visit are of a sensitive nature. Thus, staff need to understand the surroundings in which they are speaking with a patient, with an eye to preserving confidentiality.

9. Do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. Set time estimates for patients and update them on any changes. Apologize for any delays.

10. When a patient leaves, say good-bye warmly and wish them well. If applicable, say that you look forward to seeing them again. This "closes the loop," affirms respect and gives staff an opportunity to acknowledge the patient once again by name.