Perfecting the Outpatient Experience
By Carrie Stiles, MBA, CRA, RT(R)(CT)
Healthcare consumerism is a trend that’s developed over the past several years. According to findings in “Perfecting the Outpatient Experience,” a publication authored by the Imaging Performance Partnership at the Advisory Board Company, patients are exhibiting consumer-like behavior by pursuing both price transparency and high levels of service. Outpatient imaging is especially primed to feel the effects of this trend because procedures are usually non-urgent, affording patients time to research and choose the best provider in their market. Price variations between facilities also causes outpatient imaging to be particularly affected by the pressures of consumerism.
Several market forces have contributed to this trend, the strongest of which is heightened cost-shifting. Patients now cover a larger portion of costs, high-deductible plans are on the rise, and monthly premiums have increased. Coupled with the 50 million uninsured Americans, it’s evident that patients have a vested interest in obtaining care from the provider that offers the greatest value.
Patient perception of their experience is also now tied to reimbursement. Inpatient centers are already familiar with CMS’s HCAHPS survey. It’s assumed that commercial payers will follow CMS’s lead and develop comparable pay-for-performance initiatives, so imaging facilities should focus on improving patient satisfaction now.
As a result, facilities are working to increase service quality and maximize the value of care delivered. However, tight margins mean service enhancements must be pursued economically. The three key areas facilities should focus on are: removing obstacles to convenience, deploying service-oriented staff, and ensuring a positive patient experience.
Removing Obstacles to Convenience
Facilities believe they have to come up with outrageous service gestures when instead, they need to first start by simplifying the process of obtaining an imaging exam. This does not mean that “wow moments” have no impact on loyalty, but instead that efforts may be wasted if basic customer experiences, such as access and scheduling, aren’t addressed first. Enhancing online offerings (pre-registration, digital access to images, pre-procedure instructions, and financial information), allowing self-schedule, and easing referral transmissions can increase convenience. Loyalty in outpatient imaging is also affected by the referring physician. Patients and physicians must be seen as two interconnected constituencies; if one is disappointed, the other will be too, so it’s important that facilities nurture both relationships.
Deploying Service-Oriented Staff
Employees that directly interact with patients shoulder much of the responsibility of ensuring a positive patient experience. Imaging leaders must hire staff who prioritize patient service, and, once hired, employees should be provided with tools to guide patient interactions as language and communication have a significant impact on overall experience. Leaders should also monitor employee performance to ensure service is consistently delivered over time. While hiring and training staff is necessary for ensuring superior service, to achieve the highest levels of patient satisfaction, imaging employees must be engaged in their work. Imaging leaders must put mechanisms in place to support this.
Ensuring a Positive Patient Experience
Imaging staff often forget that exams can be rife with anxiety. To ensure a positive patient experience, acknowledge concerns and ease fears whenever possible. Creating a patient-centered infrastructure and facilitating personal connections can assist in relieving anxiety. Despite our best efforts, service lapses are inevitable. Upon experiencing poor service, 70% of customers will not return and 75% will share their experience with others. However, service failures can increase satisfaction and facilitate loyalty in the long-term if they are properly addressed and recovered. Five key components to successful service recovery are: invite customers to complain; encourage empathetic staff behavior; equip staff with tools to engage in recovery; ensure a system for documentation and problem resolution; and provide clarity on protocols for handling complaints.
In summary, outpatient imaging leaders need to be aware of the market forces impacting the industry and develop strategies to overcome these challenges in order to be successful in today’s healthcare environment.
Bibliography: Perfecting the Outpatient Experience: Tactics for Meeting the Growing Consumer Mandate. The Advisory Board Company. 2012.
Carrie Stiles, MBA, CRA, RT(R)(CT) works at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX. She can be reached at cstiles@HoustonMethodist.org.