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If the term “patient retention” makes you cringe and feel like a salesperson, we get it. You became a doctor to practice medicine, not marketing. But the truth is, marketing has become a necessary skill if a medical venture is to stay afloat and prosper—whether it’s an insurance carrier, hospital, or private practice. Implementing effective strategies for building a loyal patient following is an important part of that process. After all, a loyal patient is worth more than the sum of their appointments over a lifetime. Though it may take a little effort compared to customers in other sectors, returning patients are more likely than new patients to write a reviewrefer another patient to you, and ask about additional treatments you offer.

That’s why we’re offering a four-part series on patient retention. In this first installment, we’ll provide a few basic strategies for fostering patient loyalty. In the coming weeks, look for additional articles that will take a deeper dive into how to keep track of your efforts, be more proactive (but never pushy), and foster a strong long-term doctor-patient relationship. Taken as a whole, this series will provide the understanding you need to create a loyal patient following—and a practice that keeps people healthy and happy, not just in the short term but for many years to come. 

Whether consciously or subconsciously, the one thought that goes through your mind after leaving a dry cleaner, workout studio, hotel, or restaurant is this: Do I ever want to come back? Your brain is weighing a bunch of factors, but typically there’s one that drives your decision. And while good health is something that can’t ever be compared to a pressed shirt or a well-executed T-bone, a patient can’t help but go through the same thinking process as he completes his first visit with you.  “There’s this new generation of ‘need it now’ consumerism that now also applies to a physician’s practice. So there’s a high risk of that consumer going somewhere else if an interaction is anything but stellar,” says Nina Grant, vice president of business development at Practice Builders, a healthcare marketing agency based in Irvine, California.

So what’s the driving force that will get patients coming back? A positive customer experience, pure and simple. It’s not price—which is the number-one driver in all other sectors. Nor is it prestige. It’s just feeling good about the visit, says a report commissioned by the Health Research Institute (HRI) at PricewaterhouseCoopers. And what if he somehow finds another doctor in his network that offers better customer experience? Then there’s a significant chance you’re out of luck. A third of patients are willing to jump ship to another provider, according to HRI’s survey. And with review sites and social media, patients have multiple opportunities to talk themselves into and out of a practice, says Grant.  

Making matters more challenging, patients are particularly tough customers. When a patient is unhappy about a visit and is given an apology, a third still won’t come back again—that’s a considerable proportion compared to the mere 12 percent who refuse to forgive and forget in other industries, according the the report. That said, first impressions are important and you’ve got to nail it at that first visit.

How to do that exactly? “It comes down to practice operations,” says Grant. “Is the practice buttoned up, does it run on time and does the team present itself as one unit?” To answer “Yes!” to all the above, we’ve rounded up some basic guidelines. 

Foster confidence in your practice. Obviously, patients want a competent team of people taking care of their health. And obviously, you’re already making sure they’re getting that by delivering the best care possible, keeping track of their progress, and staying up on the latest developments relevant to your field.  But does your office convey that? It’s hard to be convincing if phone calls are always going into voicemail and not quickly returned, and if the same questions are asked of the patients again and again.

Of course, accurate diagnoses and effective treatment is important above all. But if most doctors in your community are (hopefully) also offering this, then you need to go above and beyond. So it helps to keep track of not only what’s in the medical journals but also what’s trending in the popular media in your field, so you can be the voice of reason when patients ask about it. It also helps to offer up-to-date patient-education literature.  Fifty-seven percent of patients surveyed in the HRI report placed a “high value” on what they learn during a visit. While you might not want brochures piled up inelegantly on your waiting room coffee table,  you could organize them into folders or binders, and offer them up to relevant patients so that they know that your practice is on top of the latest and greatest.

 

1. Create a welcoming front desk

Your front-desk staff are the first people your patient sees and they set the tone of her visit. According to the HRI report, 70 percent of patients say that an experience during a provider’s visit is positive if the staff’s attitude was positive. That means your front desk person has twice as much influence on your business as the check-in person does for a hotel.

There are many ways to make sure your team is friendly. Start during the hiring process by finding people who are as empathetic and warm as they are professional and capable. As the job site Monster.com advises, a good receptionist doesn’t just answer phones and inputs information into a computer. He or she must be “customer-service oriented”—which means they knows how to make a patient feel at ease when he’s under stress, even when your practice is having a busy day.

As for current team members, articulate what your expectations are in terms of how every patient should be treated from the time she walks through your door to the moment she leaves. Ask them to pitch in with the practice’s retention efforts, too. “One of the biggest mistakes,” says Grant, is that the practice doesn’t ask the patient to come back. Patients slip away—sometimes without so much as a good-bye—when, in fact, it’s an opportunity for the front desk to schedule the next appointment, whether it’s a follow-up in a couple of weeks or an annual checkup next year.

 

2. Be empathetic and helpful

According to a Harvard Business Review article, customer satisfaction isn’t enough—you need to connect with customers at an emotional level.  Of course, a person has different needs and expectations when he’s in a bank or airline terminal compared to when he’s in your office. But by putting yourself in the patient’s shoes, you can imagine what sorts of emotional needs should be addressed. Chances are, he’s probably stressed out—whether it’s about his condition or about being able to make it back to work on time. Naturally, he’d like to feel cared for as an individual, as opposed to an item on your to-do list. That said, take the few extra minutes to explain the problem and treatment and to answer any questions. Schedule patients so that you don’t run late, and apologize when you do.

These small efforts can make a difference. According to research conducted by Weatherby Healthcare, a temporary-placement company for healthcare workers, a quarter of patients are willing to switch their doctor if they found one with “a more positive attitude.”

 

3. Make things convenient and comfortable

As Grant points out, younger patients expect healthcare to be as easy and convenient as taking an Uber to the airport or ordering their dinner online (which perhaps explains why only 67 percent of patients age 18 to 34 are satisfied with their physicians, while 82 percent over the age of 55 are, according to the Weatherby report). So anything that doesn’t fit seamlessly into their on-demand world is subject to elimination, especially if something better comes up.

In the PWC survey, 65 percent of patients surveyed “appreciate the ability to exchange information through online and mobile channels of communications.” That said, booking and changing appointments should be doable on the go (of course, Zocdoc can assist with that) and paperwork should be kept to a minimum (we can help with that, too).

Beyond that, says Grant, “treat your waiting room like your living room.” Fifty-three percent of consumers surveyed place a “high degree of value” on having access to a cafeteria, WiFi, and other entertainment, according to the HRI study. Hospitals and larger complexes can accommodate this more completely than small practices, of course, but, as Grant points out, a mini-fridge filled with sparkling water and WiFi  are “creature comforts [that can] go a long way.”  The Weatherby survey reports that the design of the facility factored into 80 percent of respondents’ reason for leaving—suggesting that if you’re office hasn’t been updated even slightly in the last 20 years, it may turn away younger patients.

 

4. Get feedback from patients—and follow up

The first step to fixing a problem is knowing what the problem is in the first place. That’s why some providers have implemented a quick survey from patients before they leave the office. (Or you can also simply ask if everything was as they liked and what could be done better.) This gives your practice the chance to make it right before the patient vents online—and goes to another doctor.  

 

Stay tuned for our part two of our series, which bring these basic customer-retention strategies to the next level—from winning back an unsatisfied patient (and knowing when it’s not worth it) to setting up a patient loyalty program.

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