All Patients are Customers, But Not All Customers are Patients

All Patients are Customers, But Not All Customers are Patients

Why a Shift in Terminology is Needed for More Effective Strategic Growth

By Lee Ann Lambdin

The title of this post is inspired by a quote from Dr. John Boornazian, Medical Director for Huggins Hospital. I worked with him and others at Huggins to develop their strategic plan in just six months. During their planning process, the team wrestled with how to describe the people they served—were they customers or patients? The executive team at Huggins was comfortable with the word customer, but the staff wanted to use the term patient. 

In the end, it was Dr. Boornazian who persuaded the staff to use the word customer, a word he had previously detested. His change of heart occurred when he came to terms with the new reality of patient choice and mobility. If a patient determines that better quality or service can be obtained elsewhere, they will travel past your hospital to a provider they deem more worthy of their loyalty. In today’s healthcare world, patients expect to be treated with a certain level of customer service, and a shift in mindset is needed to meet these new patient expectations.


Resistance to Change

In healthcare, we hold tightly to the Hippocratic Oath when considering the doctor/patient relationship. But the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t mention retail medicine, patient choice, or customer experience, all factors that heavily influence today’s doctor/patient reality. Still, the long-standing ties to the Oath are hard to overcome, which means that even after all these years of transition, where healthcare has become more of a consumer-driven service, many hospitals in particular, and health systems in general, still struggle with calling a patient a customer.

Calling patients "consumers" reduces the role of physicians to "providers," who are essentially assembly line workers, writes Chuck Dinerstein, MD, a retired vascular surgeon and senior medical fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. In a blog for the American Council on Science and Health, cited by Becker’s Hospital Review, Dr. Dinerstein contends that the words "consumer" and "provider" cheapen the physician-patient relationship. His viewpoint is not uncommon, but it is facing more opposition as healthcare contends with a culture demanding more from their providers than simply the treatment of their illnesses. They want great care that is timely, affordable, and as pleasant as possible.


Why Change is Inevitable

Let’s consider this common example as a way to demonstrate the difference between patients and customers. When I go to the physician for my yearly wellness check-in, I’m not sick, which means I’m not visiting my provider as a patient. I’m a customer who, while currently loyal to the physician office I’m visiting, has expectations… and options. I want to receive a certain level of quality and service. I want the best value for my dollar. But if I don’t receive this level of care, I can simply select another provider. This sounds a lot like retail, and the expectations of the average customer, to me.  

As hospitals place outpatient sites all over their markets in the form of primary care clinics, urgent care clinics, free-standing Emergency Departments, radiology centers, fitness centers and more—they are trying to be more accessible to potential new customers. Customers who are not yet loyal patients, but who may be, one day, if these outpatient encounters a positive.

Robert Earley, CEO of the Texas JPS Health Network, spoke at the Tennessee Hospital Association annual conference. He is an inspirational leader, a great speaker, and successful CEO. He said something that made me think, “A consumer has a choice, ours are patients.” His point being, since they are a public/charity hospital, the people who come to them for care don’t have a choice for where they get care. They likely need what JPS has to offer and cannot afford another option. But I would argue that even in this case, their patients do, in fact, have a choice and should still be viewed as customers. If they’re not treated with respect, or do not receive a level of care that meets their satisfaction, they may choose not to seek treatment at all. If there isn’t enough provider capacity and the waits are too long, their patients can seek out other options, possibly other hospitals in Houston who treat self-pay patients. So even in the case of a charity health provider, it’s key to keep this viewpoint of treating patients as consumers.


The Takeaway

We in healthcare must make the transition to see that all patients are customers, but not all customers are patients. There are members of your community who have yet to use more than an urgent care. But when they do need urgent care, what they experience must be a level of care that earns their loyalty as a patient. So when the time comes that they need more acute care, they are already your patient, they are already committed to your hospital and the level of care you provide. Following this line of thinking will lead to increased market share and covered lives for your system in 2020 and beyond.

As you consider your 2020 strategic plan, is your team ready to make the shift to viewing patients as customers and recognizing that not all customers as patients, yet? Schedule a discovery call today and find out how we can support your strategic planning process and your growth, as you make this mental shift from being patient to customer-focused.

Article by Lee Ann Lambdin, SVP of Healthcare Strategy for Stratasan

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