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11 Jun 2013
Learning lessons from hospitality for healthcare

Dr Vandana Jain, MD, Advanced Eye Hospital & Institute and Consultant Ophthalmology, MGM Vashi talks about service delivery in hospitals and means to enhance it by following some strategies adopted by the hospitality sector

Hospitals are supposed to function just like any other service industry but what is surprising is that it does not function as a service industry at all. In fact, in many respects, healthcare has not applied many principles that other industries, service or otherwise, have used to improve their performance. There is a prevalence of tunnel vision on quality.

Historically, healthcare organisations relied on traditions of quality performance as their primary differentiating strategy in the marketplace. What the healthcare delivery industry is yet to understand is that clinical quality alone is not a sufficient differentiator. Despite the fact that our society is changing to one of enhanced consumerism and there is intolerance for poor service and impatience, many organisations continue to fall back on ‘clinical quality’ as their distinguishing feature. Non-clinical touch points can far outnumber those that a patient has with a physician or caregiver. They also are often the first and last impression that a patient has of the organisation. As a result of healthcare's historical lack of focus on the service elements of its operations, healthcare delivery is in fact a service industry that doesn't act like one.

Healthcare delivery has become more competitive. Patients have more choice of hospitals and information available to them now than ever before, and they are increasingly acting as consumers. This makes gaining customer loyalty as important as managing costs and revenues, and hospitals need to innovate to retain customers and maintain profitability. With this imminent reality, making a strategic choice to provide patients with the best experience is a proactive and sustainable way to create competitive advantage in this dynamic marketplace. This strategy requires providers to reassess their organisations from the perspective of the patient. We need to ask a lot of forward-leaning questions: what will the world look like in the next five years? What are the long-term trends that are shaping patients' desires? And how do we align ourselves with those trends?

Armed with a thorough understanding of patient expectations and experiences, the organisation can begin to develop a compelling vision of the future. Five basic themes were noted about patients’ expectations of their healthcare experiences in a recent survey:

  • Personalisation: Patients want to be known to their healthcare providers as individuals.
  • Security: Patients expect their privacy and security to be protected
  • Operates like a business: Patients want their healthcare providers to be ‘easy to work with’
  • Dependability: Patients want predictability, consistency and dependability
  • Transparency: Patients, and their families, want to ‘see’ and understand what is happening to them

Understanding these five attributes and how they relate to touch points for specific patient populations, is the first step in making the strategic choice to deliver an enhanced patient experience. Armed with a thorough understanding of patient expectations and experiences, the organisation can begin to develop a compelling vision of the future. To create a differentiable ‘patient experience’, healthcare providers need to cultivate the ‘customer experience’ capabilities successfully employed by consumer-oriented businesses such as:

  • A clear vision and strategy of delivering an exceptional customer experience based on a deep understanding of the service expectations of their customers;
  • Internal delivery capabilities, both operational and technology-enabled, that are focused on delivering the envisioned experience and agile enough to evolve with the customer;
  • A structure and culture that empowers and rewards employees for superior delivery;
  • Measurement capabilities to identify and track customers’ evolving service expectations.

There is a need for the healthcare industry to be more responsive to customer wants, needs, and expectations for convenience, comfort, information, and personal control in the patient experience. Healthcare providers should consider developing these “customer experience capabilities” in their efforts to successfully create and deliver their targeted patient experiences.

Approach and philosophies that can be borrowed from the hospitality industry are as follows:

  • Creating the 'wow' experience: When customers ask for a service and you deliver it, you’re just meeting their expectations. Instead, aim for giving patients a 'wow!' experience. To achieve a wow experience, people need to stay ‘in the moment’ or, as Ritz-Carlton puts it, ‘radar on, antenna up’. In essence, staff should be so attuned to patients and families that they can anticipate what’s needed, even without a verbal request. It doesn’t cost anything to stay in the moment. Health care staff may say they are too busy to worry about creating a wow experience; it’s hard enough to get the work done in an era of short staffing. Every industry runs into the “busy factor.” “If one has the spirit to serve, it can be overcome. We can use role play and acting to educate staff and keep them at the top of their game. There should be a zero tolerance for poor presentation to patients.
  • Instill the spirit to serve (culture shift): Instilling the spirit to serve begins with talent management—getting the right people in the right jobs. All the employees need to be screened well to identify what strengths and talents the person has. There is a need to focus on people’s strengths, not weaknesses. Several tools for hiring can be used to assist this process. Post hiring orientation is important to ensure that everyone understands the culture and the nature of the work prior to actually starting the work.
  • Start at the top: Leadership at every level is the key for customer service success. For example: when a visitor/patient asks for directions, the employee, whether it’s the CEO or a staff member, can guide him or her to the destination. 
    We at our organisation, Advanced Eye Hospital and Institute, have vitality sessions twice a day, which are attended by all the employees and the doctors. This is a 15-minute meeting. Each day, one aspect of culture is reviewed, so the mission and credo are reviewed regularly, not just when something goes wrong. Also inspiration stories, wow experiences and feedbacks of patients are shared. 
    Leaders should pay attention to ‘the systems behind the smile.’ Constant non-medical crises can inhibit the staff from giving great service. Starting with attention to detail, adding care and connection, and getting rid of flawed processes is the key to success.
  • Serve the employees: The internal customers i.e. the employees who provide customer service should not be forgotten. Work-life balance for employees is important. Every attempt should be made to make it easier for them to come to work and decrease their stressors. 
    The best service comes from a human connection. Several factors have been identified that influence the success of implementing change within an organisation such as hospitals: leadership support of the change initiative, communicating the vision for the change, including all levels of employees in the change initiative, utilising a measurement tool to gauge success, clarifying and defining employee’s roles and responsibilities, and institutionalising the changes into the existing organisational culture.

The time is right, we all should make a concerted effort to create a great experience for the patients. Additionally, legendary and individualised service in healthcare institutions can improve its financial performance as well.