11 ways to keep patients satisfied

September 21, 2007

Your front desk staff can make the patient experience positive, or turn them off. Here's how to make sure that all goes well.

Your front-desk staff is an extension of you and the environment you want to create for your patients. While your staff members may be bright and caring people, it's possible they have some unconscious habits that can undermine a patient's sense of satisfaction when they come in for a visit.

I'm retired now, but when I was seeing patients every day, I had a list of 11 mini golden rules posted at several strategic points in our office. Here's that list, along with the reasons why we adopted each of the rules on it:

1) Greet each patient with a smile. Many years ago, we hired Sally (not her real name) as our receptionist. Although an efficient worker, she rarely smiled. Then one morning a patient named Barry, a big, cheerful man, invariably full of jokes, breezed into the office. Grimly preoccupied with sorting through some papers, Sally failed to acknowledge Barry's presence. After a few seconds, he banged his big hand on her desk and proclaimed loudly, "Wake up, young lady! Life's too short to look so miserable!"

2) Treat each patient as the most important person in the room. This rule also came about as the result of a former receptionist's behavior. Because of either shyness or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Janice found it difficult to make eye contact or to focus on most matters at hand. When patients arrived, she seemed to be unaware of them, turning, instead, to shuffle papers or to talk to another staffer. We alerted her to the problem and to the fact that arriving patients felt ignored. Janice resolved to do better-and, in fact, did eventually improve. That, in turn, led to positive feedback from patients and a further boost in Janice's confidence and performance. It also led to our enshrining a new rule.

3) Avoid mentioning a patient's name and diagnosis in the same sentence. One of our nurses was caring and very competent but had an exceptionally loud voice. In the days before HIPAA, she'd routinely blurt out for all to hear sentences such as, "John Smith has prostatitis again" or "Helen Will has head lice." It wasn't easy to change her behavior, but change it did, and thus rule No. 3 was institutionalized in our office.

4) Stick to what you're qualified to do. Brenda was a middle-aged woman with grown children whom we'd hired to be our secretary. Although very good at her job, she had a distressing habit that we weren't immediately aware of: She gave unsolicited medical advice to patients. "Oh, you should take a couple of aspirins for that" or "I wouldn't worry about that pain-it doesn't sound serious," she'd sometimes say to patients.

Her problem came to light one day while I was seeing a 40-year-old male patient. "I've got this pain in my chest," he said to me. "But I guess I shouldn't be so worried about it. Brenda says it sounds like indigestion-says I should take an antacid and get more exercise." The following week, this same patient underwent bypass surgery. Needless to say, we posted rule No. 4 immediately on our growing list of office dos and don'ts.