Customer Service in Healthcare

Most well-run healthcare organizations succeed in providing effective medical intervention; however, they sometimes come up short on the customer service end of care.

“We assume we provide caring, compassionate, empathetic care, but do we?” asked Dennis Bush, PA, MHA, senior managing director of the Healthcare Consulting Division at Martin Healthcare Advisors. “And, most importantly, how do we measure that?”

Large companies outside of healthcare make this a top priority, which bears the fruits of profitability and satisfied customers. Just look at Disney, which brought in revenue of $42.3 billion last year.1

Former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, once said, “We are in the business of exceeding expectations,” not merely meeting them.

A Quality Production 

The Disney model focuses on exceeding customer expectations and creating lasting memories, something that can be applied to healthcare service, as well.

Focusing on six elements, their quality service model proposes some key questions to help translate the customer service experience you provide into one that’s exceptional.2


  • Guestology
    1. : the study of guests and their wants and needs. Who are your customers and how can you anticipate their needs?


  • Quality standards:
    1. operational guidelines to providing an outstanding experience for the guest; questions include: “Are the operational hours ideal?” and “What can I do to lessen or avoid over crowding?”


  • Cast (employees):
    1. the people charged with delivering outstanding service. Are you properly aligning the talents of each individual with a role (job) that will utilize those gifts?


  • Setting:
    1. The physical environment: is it clear where your guests should “place their order”? Is your entrance inviting and clean?


  • Process:
    1. The step-by-step procedure for accomplishing a task. If a guest has a complaint, what is the appropriate channel for direction?


  • Integration:
    1. How do you make sure each piece works seamlessly with the others to deliver the best possible experience?



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When Bush consulted the Disney Institute for strategies to apply to healthcare organizations, he realized the theme park setting didn’t exactly translate to a healthcare environment. Understandably, some clinical staffers and physicians were hesitant to get on board with any model related to Disney.

“I told our ICU nurses I was going to bring this project to our health system. One of them nearly strangled me, asking, ‘Are you out of your mind? It’s not magical and fun here like Disney! We have a serious job to do.'”

It Starts With Your Mission


Indeed, Bush knew all too well. The serious job of a healthcare provider can often be understood in their mission statement, for example: “Restoring hope to patients living in our community,” “Recognizing the value of every person,” or “Being a responsive healing environment that improves quality of life.”

This type of mission can be met through implementing a five-ring service model that focuses on “customers” in the center. Staff delivery, performance goal and environment are the other components, all inextricably linked together and with the main focus, patients – or customers. Each component has an equal force in creating a service culture, which also includes subsections, or 15 elements of the healthcare service model.

Bush developed the model’s strategies and tactics based on his many experiences with Disney.

Consider the importance of relationships amongst internal customers: communication, attitude and treatment of nurses, doctors, physical therapists, and front desk staff – your main cast of characters. They all must treat the patient, or external customer, with respect and dignity.

As for a performance theme noted in element three, remember to place the organization’s mission and values front and center.

“When I ask, ‘What’s your mission statement?’ people look at me like I have two heads,” reported Bush. “Any Disney employee can articulate it in one easy but powerful sentence.”

Clearly delineate the performance standards for your practice and employees via clinical service statistics and referral standards.

Elements five, six and seven fit in the environmental ring, the impact of which cannot be overstated. Is your facility warm, clean, welcoming and appealing? If not, it’s time to make that a top priority.

“I can come into an organization with my ‘Disney eyes,’ and I can pretty quickly see from the parking lot as soon as I arrive: trash, clutter, boxes here and there, scratches on walls. These are the first impression patients have,” Bush said. Organizations should pay particular attention to ensuring staff members appear well kept and uniformly dressed.

Element eight focuses on performance management, which entails trending your service delivery data, with nine as the response of service enhancement. Bush recommends hiring a freelance “mystery shopper” to uncover a set of important practice elements.

Examples include how quickly a patient is greeted, how long a patient is on hold when placing a phone call to the office, and how much compassion and empathy the patient perceives from the staff. Assess your own practice and determine where your weak – or even average – areas may be. Collect hard data so you can measure and make changes if needed.

Know Your Customers 

Another common approach for evaluating performance is conducting a focus group in the community. Identify patients of your organization and invite them to an after hours event with light food to discuss how they’ve been treated at your clinic.

Find out what things you can do to differentiate yourself from other practices – and hear them right from the patients. What do they want, and how can you give it to them?

Often the changes that will make the most impact are not expensive ones; they may involve simply amending a few basic processes and smoothing out edges.


Consumer Driven Healthcare

Patient engagement is critical to meeting quality initiatives.

Many facilities have successfully implemented a first impression tool, which asks residents to answer on a card five questions about their impressions after the initial visit. Track responses in a simple Excel sheet and you can even sort out which clinical staff people/therapists/nurses are well received. Managers also want to track other impressions at discharge.

“That kind of feedback data is really important,” noted Bush. “You need to find a way to produce comparative data,” he added, either through your information systems or old-fashioned pen and paper queries. “What is the likelihood of you referring us to a friend or relative?” is the ultimate answer to seek. Consider what your patients would say.

The remaining elements of the healthcare service model are focused on staffing decisions: hiring the right people, managing and rewarding them, engaging them and compensating them.

“You don’t have to train people to be caring and compassionate,” Bush said. “Hire the right talent for the right fit, right out of the gate.”

Leadership Must-Have’s

Many healthcare providers look to Gallup leadership for hiring tenets, which notes five components that must be in place, working together systematically, including:

  • a succession plan that works;
  • a way to audit the talent at all levels of the organization;
  • the right recruiting and hiring strategy; and
  • an intentional plan to provide the necessary breakthrough experiences for high-potential managers and leaders at the right times in their careers;

The systems needed to provide ongoing development, engagement and performance management to keep top talent.Organizations must hire the right talent and work to keep them.


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Managers also must work hard to get and keep them engaged, so patients will be engaged, too.

Create “Hawaiian fun day” with tropical shirts and pineapple treats, raffling off a gift card to patients who “dress the part.” In February, put out kisses and materials including the organization’s info to make Valentine’s in the waiting room so patients can bring home something special to their partner.

The idea is to link service initiatives with marketing and advertising initiatives so your facility stands out. Most importantly, facilitate an upbeat attitude amongst staff members, and your patients will feel it, too.

“Look at the research on laughter and healing and you will see that patients will heal and progress more quickly if they are having a good time while in treatment,” Bush noted, especially in the world of cancer.

In the current healthcare climate, managers need to prioritize the patient experience, Bush concluded. “Progressive providers are going to find a way to keep service front and center on their radar screen.”

References for this article can be accessed here.

Kerri Reeves

is a freelance writer.

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