Medical Manners…the Power of Nice
Patients forming an opinion of your practice are doing so in a matter of seconds. And some of the latest research on first impressions, suggest that it may even be within the blink of an eye. Regardless of the length of time, first impressions are powerful and very difficult to reverse. So, if a patient has formed a bad opinion of you and your staff, during the first point of contact, you have your work cut out for you in changing that negative opinion.
Patients usually assume that you and your staff know how to do your jobs, but they also need to know you care about them, while doing your job. Your patient’s perception of their care is your reality. If you don’t have a good sense of what your practice is communicating it may be time to stand back and view things from the patient’s point of view.
Since many practices today are large and run by CEO’s and practice managers there is a temptation to turn everything over to them in the running of your office. However, checking out in that regard can create some problems and leave the physician without a good understanding of what’s going on. It’s the physician’s name on the door, not the managers. Creating a positive corporate environment starts at the top and that means with the physician.
If you want your practice to make a good impression on your patients try some the following tips:
Develop a well defined mission statement and make it a priority in delivering care. Be sure that a patient-centric philosophy carries through in everything you and your staff members do. In order to develop that philosophy you need to ask the patients what matters to them. After all, no one would have a job, including the physician, if it weren’t for the patients.
Train new and existing staff in the courtesies you want them to observe. Never assume that staff members know what that means. Small kindnesses make powerful impressions, but so do small rudenesses. That small rudeness from a staff member may be enough to cause a patient to leave your practice. Studies show patients will even forgive a bad outcome, if they feel you care about them and are listening. So, patient perceived physician empathy, communication and relationships count for a lot.
Respect and trust your staff. Approaching your staff with intimidation and negativity creates a toxic environment and one that your patients will surely pick up on. Be attentive to how often staff members leave your employment. If you have a revolving door of people coming and going frequently, you have a problem. Replacing staff members regularly is also, very costly. In a study done by the Society of Human Resource Management they reported that it can cost a company up to six to nine months of an employees salary to replace them.
Many staff members today, complain that they don’t think their physicians even know everyone’s name who works for them…a sad commentary. If you bumped into some of your staff in the grocery store could you greet them by name? Interact with your staff and be sure to thank them regularly for what they do for you. And the thank you needs to come from the physicians…don’t staff that out. The staff can be some of your best P.R. agents.
Have a well defined dress code. Your patients are paying attention to how people look in your office. Everyone in the same uniform can make a great impression and create a sense of solidarity within the staff. Insist on good grooming from top to bottom. Tidy hair, clean shoes and pressed scrubs are a must. And gum chewing? As tempted as some might be, it is a solitary activity and should not be done in public.
Avoid the “cattle call” when calling patients back to an exam room. Encourage staff members to walk out into the waiting area to call patients back instead of standing at the door shouting their name. When patients check in, consider making a notation on a sticky note that can be put on the chart to identify the patients waiting. In doing that the person rooming patients can walk right up to them to take them back. (For instance, noting the color of an article of clothing.)
Do keep patients apprised of waiting time and apologize if you’ve kept them waiting. That apology let’s them know you value and respect their time too. Patients should be checked on every 15 minutes while waiting in the exam rooms and kept informed of the physician’s timing.
Be professional in greeting your patients. Address them formally until invited to do otherwise. Age and rank have their privileges. Also, avoid using patronizing terms such as,”honey” or “dear” when addressing patients…it’s insulting.
Smile and introduce yourself to your patients and make sure staff members do the same, even if you wear name badges. And using please and thank you often and you’re welcome or my pleasure, instead of “no problem” is always in style.
Maintain a pleasant atmosphere in your office, but avoid a party atmosphere. Patients coming in for serious issues need to feel that you are taking them seriously and are ready to do what is needed to address those issues.
Never let your patients hear you or staff complain about work, co-workers or other patients. Be aware of how loud you talk and what can be overheard from out in the hall or other areas where patients may be within ear shot.
Reach out and touch your patients with a warm greeting and handshake before you start your exam and log into your computer. Your patients should never leave your office without someone physically greeting them.
Try making a little small talk at the beginning of the patient’s visit. This helps establish a relationship with your patients and can help relax them if they are nervous.
Displaying a sense of confidence with your patients is important, but be careful that your confidence doesn’t come off as arrogance. Arrogance is off putting and does not endear people to you.
Sit down when speaking with your patients and make good eye contact. If eye contact is a problem while you are working on the computer, look at your patient when asking a question and look at the computer when entering the data. It’s an important balancing act.
Watch your body language while with your patients. If you have one hand on the door knob and one foot out the door before your patients finish talking, you are sending the message that you don’t have time for them. Always, close your conversation by asking if they have any other questions or by letting them know that the nurse will be in to finish up, before you walk out of the room. We call that, “taking your leave.”
Send a thank you note to new patients for choosing your practice and to referring physicians. Those seemingly small courtesies, have a big impact and distinguish you and your practice. Remember, patients and referring physicians have a lot of choices today in such a competitive market.
If you are in a practice with long standing patients and a patient dies, have a system in place to acknowledge the death with a note to the family members. It can come from the physician or one of your staff members. Keep in mind, as a physician, you are often part of some of the most important and intimate events in a person’s life. Some of those events are happy, like when a baby is born, but some of the events are sad, like when a patient dies. Not acknowledging a death can leave the impression that you and your staff don’t care. And it has even caused patients to leave practices.
As you step back and evaluate the pulse of your practice be mindful of some of the small things that can make big differences in how your patients perceive the care you and your staff deliver.
Remember what Maya Angelou said…
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”