From a patient’s perspective, a medical office can often feel as though interactions with staff are on “autopilot.” This may be a sign of efficiency at the office but it’s bad for building patient loyalty and referrals.
Imagine for a moment, what you want your patients to think and feel as a result of their experience with your Team. What is it that you want them to tell their friends and family about their experience? What are the lasting memories and feelings you want them to have? You likely want them to describe their experience with your staff as respectful, prompt, caring, friendly, professional, accurate, and competent, among other things.
When you take the time to articulate these descriptors, you have started the process of creating an intentional patient experience. This is an experience that begins with setting your Front Office Team up for how to behave with your patients. It is just as important as having the right policies, practices, and technology, and hiring quality co-workers. Your patient experience is the result of your Team’s interactions with patients and transcends office design, workflows, and quality of equipment. If you do not think and act deliberately about how your staff interacts with patients, what your patients experience is up for grabs. The latter is a poor strategy in a competitive market.
The patient experience and cycle time
Your Front Office Team is the source of your patients’ first and last impressions of your practice. They are the first touch at check-in, influence the efficiency, and ease of the middle touches delivered to patients by your Clinical Team (through preparing charts and paperwork). They are also the final touch and impression of your Team at check-out. Front Office Team Members are your primary ambassadors with the public, current and future patients, and, often, the first point of contact in an emergency or when expectations go unmet. The concern, respect, and hospitality they show influences patient intentions to return for care, and the likelihood they will refer your practice to friends and family. This conclusion comes from a study recently completed by Corvirtus of more than a thousand online patient reviews for primary and urgent care providers. The Front Office Team’s service and efficiency are one of the strongest drivers of patient satisfaction and intentions to return and refer. In fact, a whopping 43% of 5-star reviews and 61% of 1-star reviews mentioned the manners and perceived efficiency of the Front Office Team. But, let’s take a moment to look at an important key to successful operations.
Cycle time—the average number of minutes from the time a patient checks in until he or she checks-out—is strongly influenced by your Front Office Team. A shorter cycle time not only benefits your patients, but also increases the number of patients that can be seen. You can reduce cycle time by creating a chart on how patients currently spend their visit. This process illuminates opportunities to improve the patient experience; moreover, it enables you to add impression-building touchpoints (e.g., warm interactions with patients, updates on wait times) when patients have to wait longer than expected (e.g., during high traffic times or during patient emergencies when your Clinical Team is occupied). This information helps you determine whether additional staff is needed or if other changes to workflow could reduce cycle times during these periods.
Delivering an efficient check-out process—your practice’s last touch with the patient—that shows care and concern is another opportunity for Front Office Teams to build patient loyalty. It conveys that your Team cares about the patient’s well-being and continued care. Equipping your Front Office Team with active listening skills training, knowledge to answer common, non-clinical patient questions, and providing FAQ sheets for them to give to patients can improve this influential aspect of the patient’s experience. Think about times you’ve had needs and concerns as a patient or caregiver when finishing a medical appointment, procedure, or urgent care visit. One pain-point for patients is a reluctance to schedule a follow-up appointment at check-out because of uncertainty in how long the next appointment will take. You can increase the likelihood of continued care and repeat visits by providing patients with information on the length of time required for their next visit, so they can make arrangements with confidence. After check-out, your Front Office Team can build even stronger connections with patients by calling to follow-up on care. This allows you to address any patient questions or concerns while showing genuine care for patients.
Hiring a top-performing Front Office Team
With the direction for the patient experience established, you can begin thinking about how to hire Front Office Team Members who will consistently execute your vision for care. What are the behaviors and qualities your Team needs to deliver your intended patient experience? Interview top-performing Front Office Team Members to determine what skills, values, and behaviors are important. Think through common reasons for voluntary, and involuntary, terminations. Ask your patients what they value. Note compliments that patients give the staff. You can also consult online resources that provide job descriptions and research-backed information about the skills and traits required for success. For example, the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, provides information for building job descriptions and hiring criteria including tasks, tools and technology, skills, abilities, and knowledge for core Front Office Team positions such as Billing Coordinator, Office Manager, Clerk, and Receptionist.
Engaging a talent management expert, or provider of pre-employment assessments, to identify candidates who can consistently execute your intended patient experience can make your hiring process more efficient, accurate, and successful. Validated assessments screen candidates for the qualities you know are necessary for your business and vision for care such as a drive for accuracy, communication, compassion and empathy, and mental ability.
Once candidates are screened, the interview is a prime opportunity to communicate expectations and measure a candidate’s ability to thrive in your unique environment. Clearly communicate your intended patient experience during the interview and what this means for daily expectations. Create a list of situational questions you ask all candidates with a set method and scale for scoring (this is often called a structured interview). Situational questions ask candidates to describe how they performed in the past, or would in the future, in a situation similar to what they will encounter on the job (e.g., customer/patient service, managing multiple demands, quality orientation). Taking these steps helps you to more precisely predict whether a candidate will succeed on the job. Giving top candidates the opportunity to observe your Front Office in action can also give you, candidates, and your Team the opportunity to see if the job and environment is a good fit.
The team is the sum of its parts
One of the keys to achieving your intended patient experience after changing the structure of work and hiring process is to continuously measure results. Patient satisfaction surveys, changes in cycle time, employee turnover, and indices of repeat patient visits can be charted over time. Celebrating improvements, discussing opportunities with your Team, and what they mean for business success and patient care can be a tremendous motivator.
From first touch to last, your Front Office Team exerts significant influence over the patient experience, loyalty, and revenue. By beginning with your intended patient experience, and then thinking through the processes and qualities you need in your Front Office Team, you will build a strategic path to increase revenue and quality care.