When a patient decides to leave a practice, they invariably say nothing – they simply don’t return. Jason Borody explains how understanding the reasons why patients move on can positively impact your practice’s bottom line.
The issue of ‘disappearing patients’ is frequently put in the too-hard basket. It’s easy to understand why, given that many practices don’t track active patient trends. Leaving patients rarely complain (less than 4%) and by the time you realise they have left it’s impossible or awkward to ask them why they are no longer patients.
There are many reasons why patients may walk – some may have been referred to another doctor or attracted to a competitor; some people may have simply relocated. However, delve a little deeper and you’ll find that these reasons are minor factors when it comes to lost patients.
Showing you Care
PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute (HRI) has found that ‘personal experience’ is the number-one reason for choosing a doctor or hospital.
The 2012 National Patient Experience Study (Source: J.D. Powers and Associates) found that “consumer perceptions are built across multiple channels – in person, online, on the phone and increasingly through nontraditional settings… the ideal experience is increasingly being defined by non-clinical elements, such as convenience, customer service, and staff attitude”.
It appears a sense of indifference by providers toward patients is the greatest reason people take their business elsewhere. Research shows that patient perceptions of not being valued by medical practices account for almost seven out of 10 patients who leave, with some surveys reporting this figure to be as high as 80%. Other factors are almost negligible, except for service dissatisfaction, which sits at 14%.
Although the Why Customers Stop Buying survey at left is not healthcare specific, the results of this well-respected document have been validated in many service areas, including healthcare, hospital and patient-satisfaction surveys. (Source: IIR Seminar Centre/ Rockefeller Foundation; published in the US News and World Report.)
Medical practitioners are generally caring professionals who strive to deliver a high standard of care, but projecting an ‘attitude of indifference’ is something entirely different.
The average practice has over 20 different ‘touchpoints’ with patients. These include ease of booking an appointment, accessibility and parking, the waiting-room experience and posttreatment follow-up and reminders.
While most doctors believe their qualifications and patient relationships are the primary factors affecting patient satisfaction, the vast majority of a patient’s experience is not actually with the doctor. What your practice does, or does not do, to build and maintain
patient rapport can be challenging to monitor and manage – especially as it is often the little things that make the biggest difference.
A sense of awareness
Patients have neither the medical expertise nor access to information that allows them to evaluate your clinical quality of care. Instead they rely on a combination of ‘how they felt’ and ‘proxy perceptions’.
It has been found that perceptions towards quality of care are often based on alternate characteristics. Poorly cleaned bathrooms raise questions of general practice hygiene, while outdated magazines in the waiting room may create perceptions of outdated
treatments and practices. Quality medical care is obviously critical, and expected, however total patient satisfaction is equally critical to patient perceptions and retention.
The good news is that it can be relatively easy and inexpensive to monitor and maintain patient satisfaction.
Along with accreditation, measuring patient satisfaction is a primary reason for undertaking perception surveys, but there are many other benefits. Patients appreciate the ability to provide feedback and value being heard, and they often provide valuable insights and ideas that can improve your practice. In addition, trended results over time provide a basis for staff and marketing performance indicators. There are many ways to track patient perceptions.
Here are some basic ideas that can be implemented immediately:
• Train staff and physicians to ask patients for feedback, and be sure to listen and respond.
• Write your own simple form with several carefully crafted questions, including at least one open-response question.
• Use an online survey tool such as ‘Survey Monkey’ to administer your surveys.
• Appoint an agency to manage your surveys.
While you may be tempted to run with a DIY option to reduce costs, there are several considerations to keep in mind:
• The process of writing questions, creating survey forms, administering surveys, data
cleaning, data collation and reporting may be more timeconsuming than you expect.
• As well as patients, the survey process should also be carried out for staff and referral sources.
• Response rates are generally higher when surveys are managed by professional independent agencies.
• Agencies can provide benchmarking against industry standards.
• The real value comes from developing strategic marketing plans based on your survey results.
Patient satisfaction should not be underestimated – patient retention and the reputation of your practice rely on it.
Every Patient Counts
Do you track the cost of lost patients? The impact may be more far-reaching than you realise. Here are just a few business reasons to make patient retention a high priority:
• Lost ‘repeat business’ over a patient’s lifetime.
• Lost patient referrals – the best and highest return-oninvestment marketing you have.
• Risk to your reputation through negative word-of-mouth.
• Loss of ‘market share’ to competitors.
• New-patient acquisition costs are much higher than retention costs.
The content in this article was published in The Private Practice Summer 2012/13 edition.