How to Maximize Your Patients’ Experience in Your Practice

I often meet a patient for the first time when I’m meeting them on the day of their endoscopic procedure. My nurse practitioner sees a lot of patients ahead of time, so by the time I meet them they have already had some experience interacting with people in our clinic . I almost always get positive comments.

  • “Your staff is just so nice!”
  • “Everyone here is really professional.”
  • “You guys are so efficient!”
  • “Are you the doctor from Texas?”

We have worked hard to create an extremely positive customer service experience for our patients.  Any time we get a complaint from a patient about an aspect of our clinical service, we take steps to correct it.  In a small, rural North Carolina community with one major hospital, reputations spread very quickly, and we have built a reputation for high quality, professional care.

I really enjoy spending time with my patients in clinic.  It’s the best opportunity I get to make an impact with patients one-on-one.  I realized a long time ago that a patient’s experience with our practice starts long before they ever meet me, and it’s crucial to address all of the aspects of that encounter to ensure that patients have a great experience.  

Right team, right culture

It all starts with hiring the right people and building a good team culture.  As a physician, you are a leader in your business, whether you wish to be or not.  We direct the flow of patient care.  One of my mentors loves to say, “Nurses get the patients better, and the doctors aim the nurses.” 

If you’re a hospital employee like me, you won’t have a lot of say when it comes to hiring.  However, you CAN influence your team’s culture.  Build the culture that you want, set high expectations, and you’ll tend to see that people who aren’t a good fit will just leave.  

Work with people who are friendly, hard working, and strong communicators.  That will help fix >90% of your clinic’s issues.  

You can’t be everywhere at once, and you can’t come up with ideas to fix every problem that arises.  What you can do is hire great team members and turn them loose to do their jobs well.

How do patients get to you?

You are in a referral business.  It should be easy for patients to get referrals to you.  That should be a low-friction process for the patient.  If they have to spend any time figuring out how to get in touch with your office, they’ll go somewhere else.  

If you’re getting direct business (e.g., primary care), people are probably finding you online or through friends.  Is your website easy to navigate?  Do you have a clear process on your website to show people how to set up an appointment?  

Your referring physicians should also have an easy way to send referrals to you.  If they have to spend any time working through a complex administrative system to get to you, they’ll go somewhere else.  Make this process easy and clear!

Spend more time with your patients

This is easier said than done, especially in clinics where you may only have 10-15 minutes with each patient.  Still, it’s true that the more time you spend talking to your patients, the better their experience will be.  Check out my post on increasing your clinic efficiency to get some practical ideas on how to achieve this. 

Another thing you can do is start to set expectations early.  When your team calls a patient to remind them about their clinic appointment, they can tell patients what their clinic visit will be like.  If you have to see 30 patients a day and they only get 10-15 minutes of your time, let them know that so they can be prepared with questions and not spend half the visit on idle chit-chat.  

Dress for success

This can vary widely among specialties.  In general, patients will expect business casual, business professional, or scrubs, so that’s a good place to start.  I used to say, “wear whatever you would wear to church,” but sometimes that now suggests a level of formality below what would be expected at a physician’s office.  

Scrubs may be more typical in surgical subspecialties, especially if you go back and forth between clinic and procedures all day.  

White coat or no white coat?  I find this to be an individual decision.  I still wear mine to clinic every day, but not everyone does.  I think it comes down to personal comfort for most people.  The white coat is a symbol that adds a degree of confidence to the patient encounter, but it’s not something everyone necessarily wants to wear every day.  

Set expectations with your staff on a daily dress code.  Again, business professional or at least business casual should be a minimum expectation.  If you have fun theme days like coordinated colors, football jerseys or Halloween costumes, that can be a fun way to break up the monotony.  

Clinic layout

Think like a retailer.  When you walk into a department store, everything is laid out meticulously.  Signs point the way to the different departments.  The floors are clean and lights are bright.  You may be greeted by an energetic and bubbly salesperson.  The checkout areas are obvious.  You need to take the same approach to setting up your clinic.

Is it easy to find your building?  If you’re in a large building, how easy is it to navigate to your office?  If people tend to get lost, put up signs to show them exactly where to go when they get off the elevator.  

When you walk into the office, your patients should see a person waiting for them (usually behind a counter).  They may be nervous or anxious, and putting a human face in front of them puts them at ease.  This person sets the tone for the visit, so they should be smiling, caring, and have a helpful attitude.  

Pay attention to the décor in your waiting room.  It should be designed to put patients at ease.  Invest in some comfortable chairs, since people may be waiting a while.  Are there current (not 10 months old) magazines available for people to read?  Also, you should think about having an area for kids to play.  Trust me, moms and dads will appreciate you so much if you have a way to help them entertain their kids while they’re waiting.   

You probably had the patient fill out a form on a clipboard.  Are the forms easy to follow?  Are they highlighted and obvious?  An even better option is to direct patients to an app or website where they can fill in this information electronically for you, saving time on data entry.  

The best option would be to have them fill out this information before they even get to your clinic.  If they can do that from the comfort of their own home, when they’re not wrangling three kids in your waiting room, they’ll be much more at ease.  

When your team member gets the patient to walk them back to the exam room, what does the walk look like?  Are they walking past physicians’ offices that are messy and cluttered?  Is the scale for the patients out in the hallway where anyone can hear their current weight being announced?  

When they get to your exam room, they may wait for you for 10-20 minutes.  Think about their experience.  I wrote a whole post on setting up your exam room, which I encourage you to read here. 

The patients go back to the front to pay after the visit.  Does someone escort them?  Are those instructions clear?  

These things matter.  Think about the last time you went to a used car lot.  Was it comforting and relaxed, or high-pressure and anxiety-inducing?  Take a deliberate approach to designing the patient encounter in terms of the physical space.  Patients will definitely notice the difference.  

Comments/suggestions

Do you have a way for people to give you feedback on the encounter?  Ask people to fill out customer surveys, either in the clinic or online.  You do have to be a little careful how you do this.  Some people will post a bad review just because they have a bad disease that you can’t fix, regardless of how excellent your care is.  Internal surveys are valuable because they offer a confidential way for patients to tell you how to make the encounter better.

How do patients contact you?

Almost nothing drives me crazier than spending 10 minutes navigating through an automated phone menu.  If you have one of those to help you out, don’t make it an epic choose-your-own-adventure story.  It shouldn’t take more than a few steps to get a patient to an actual person to talk to.  

You should also have a way for people to contact your team by email or through an online service.  Everything is electronic these days, and that’s how most people communicate now.  

I don’t give out my cell phone number or personal email to patients, though I know some people who do.  I want to have the opportunity to enjoy time with my family when I’m not working, and it’s hard to do that if 5,000 patients have 24/7 access to you and an expectation that you’ll respond right away.  

When patients contact your team, you should try to respond to them as quickly as possible.  Your team can help you triage these issues.  Some administrative items can be handled by your front desk team, medication refills can be addressed by mid-level providers, and then truly complex issues can escalate to you.  Be careful to delegate some of these patient contacts or you’ll get drowned by the deluge of calls and emails that will flood your office every day.

Conclusion

None of this happens by accident.  Highly successful people don’t wait for things to happen to them, they make things happen.  If you’re just starting a practice, go spend some time with a physician you respect and see how their clinic operates.  If you have been in practice for a long time, hire some people to be “secret shoppers” and secretly come evaluate your team and your processes.  Get feedback from your patients on ways to improve their experience.  

Make this a priority.  After all, this is a business, so you have to think like a businessperson.  If the patients have a bad experience, they’ll go to someone else and they’ll tell all of their friends to do the same.  Make each encounter excellent, and you’ll build a loyal base of patients who enjoy coming to see you and make you excited to come to work every day.  

Leave a comment below and tell us your tips for what you do to give patients the best experience possible. 

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