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Patients Have Choices: Putting a Heightened Focus on Customer Service

by Brock Malcolm, COO, Community Care of West Virginia

For years, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) have largely been given grants for providing uncompensated care, for fulfilling their mission to provide care to underserved communities, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. For better or worse, the mentality at FQHCs has been that our patients don’t have anywhere else to go. Delivering superior customer service to these patients had not been part of the thinking.

FQHCs are not alone in overlooking customer service. Far too often, those of us in health care don’t perceive what we do as service to the customer. It’s a service that we just hand out. Here it is, just what you asked for.

This is officially an old way of thinking. Now, with Medicaid expansion and formerly uninsured people enrolling in insurance plans, the new reality is that patients have far more options when seeking care, including urgent care centers and retail clinics. Our organization wisely realizes that if we don’t provide both the best possible care and the best patient experience, our patients will go elsewhere.

We want to make sure, from the very first interaction, that patients are receiving a high level of customer service. What does that mean to us? Patients know somebody’s actually listening to them and responding to their needs – and not just delivering lip service. It goes back to our core mission as an FQHC of providing the best possible care in our local community.

What can we do to keep these patients satisfied so they continue coming to our practice and telling their friends how great our care is? We are addressing this question in two ways:

  1. Being the best possible care providers in the area. Patients demand quality care, and we are committed to giving them that.
  2. Reaching out to patients and letting them know we are actively thinking about them, managing their health and caring both for them and about them.

For the latter, we run reports to identify patients who need services and then proactively contact them – with today’s technologies and services, these are the basics of population health management. People in our area of West Virginia tend to treat their own health care in a very passive way, skipping appointments or not bothering to address a serious need.

To combat this, we reach out to them with reminder calls, as do many other practices. But we recognized that our patients often get mad if we called at particular times, so we integrated another step into our internal customer service: we simply ask patients when they want to be called. We also ask, and pay attention to, what they want to be called for, and what kind of communication they’d like to receive – phone call, email, text message, etc.

We’re also trying to be innovative in ways we manage a large urgent care system at various sites throughout the region. This has involved changing our model to take on extended hours for walk-in patients. 

Because our EHR is cloud-based, and the same system of record at urgent care sites and our regular clinics, providers have anywhere-anytime access to patient records. It doesn’t matter if a patient walks in at 7:30 pm on a weeknight, or early on a Sunday morning, and whether their particular doctor is working that day. Patients can feel at ease knowing they have a provider caring for them who has access to their health history, knows what meds they take and their allergies, and is thinking about the totality of their health. This is a very different scenario than the typical urgent care center, where providers are often flying blind with patients they don’t know.

We also have the same level of access and visibility at the multiple school-based health centers we operate and are opening. With medical records in the cloud, each patient is in our system, wherever they go for care. And wherever that is, we can counsel patients to establish a medical home base, and teach them why that will help them get the best possible care.

The key underlying need throughout all of this, of course, is to be efficient and friendly – the textbook customer service model. As an FQHC, we toss traditional thinking away and consider customer service one of our highest priorities, transitioning our mindset from “patient” to “customer.” When you do that, your expectations of how you treat that person changes.

Some providers are better at this than others, and they all walk a fine line – you can’t ignore what needs to be said medically in order to save a patient’s feelings. Sometimes, when you’re focused on promoting a great patient relationship, conversations about making lifestyle adjustments can be difficult. You need to stop smoking. Your child needs to lay off the junk food. These are tough talks but, usually, one hard visit won’t end the relationship.

And consider that the time a patient spends with the doctor is a small part of the overall experience. How long was the patient’s wait? How well did the nurse treat him or her while walking back to the exam room? We need to concentrate on the small details that add up in a big way.

Anything that drives away patients isn’t good for them or for us. We now live in a nation where people have more health care options than ever. Anything that drives a patient away is bad for us – and potentially worse for that patient. We want patients to choose us not because they have to, but because we treat them better than anyone in the community.


Chief Operations Officer & In-House Legal Counsel, Community Care of West Virginia, Inc.
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