The word “customer” entails many different things. Retail customers voluntarily enter stores or shop online for products they need or want, but in some cases, like healthcare, patients sometimes become customers whether they want to or not.

In healthcare, “customer experience” has a very different definition. James Merlino, M.D., former Chief Experience Officer at the Cleveland Clinic who now works as President and Chief Medical Officer for Strategic Consulting at Press Ganey Associates called healthcare “the ultimate service business” in a recent interview with Forbes.

Putting the “Hospital” in Hospitality

Care providers have responsibilities that differ greatly from a typical customer service relationship. For starters, their “customers” in this case are typically patients, so their customer-provider relationship is happening at a vulnerable time for the customer. Service providers also have to in some cases deliver serious news to an individual or family, so the stakes are inevitably higher.

Merlino says the healthcare environment can take a page out of the hospitality industry’s book, specifically in how it motivates its people and emphasizes personal relationship oriented interactions. This, Merlino says, is achieved through good processes and cultural alignment.

According to Merlino, the three top drivers in what makes patients recommend their doctor or practice were confidence in their provider, teamwork from the clinicians, and whether providers and staff showed genuine concern for what worries them.

“The customer experience is fundamentally about doing the right thing and caring about the things that all of us in medicine should care about—competency, teamwork, and compassion,” he said.

Not All Customers are Created Equal

As in retail, all healthcare customers are not the same. They have different needs, different concerns, and require different levels of attention. Healthcare delivery is improved when that segmentation is seriously considered.

When it comes to customer or patient experience, Merlino says, it’s not about re-inventing the wheel. Much more important is focusing on what matters most, and improving execution based on those findings. Healthcare systems are best served taking a good long look at their data to understand how best practices can fit into initiatives across all areas of the healthcare delivery spectrum. From there, processes that aren’t working can be fixed, and people can be held accountable for successful implementation.

Healthcare is an industry undergoing big transformation, and the question remains of how to make patient care better across the board. Merlino says safety, quality and service are paramount for improving patient/customer experience, but addressing other challenges, like improving outdated payment systems, can add up to improved outcomes and levels of satisfactions among their customers.

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