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3 Ideas Your Practice Should Steal from Southwest

Bret Larsen, CEO at eVisit

Written by Bret Larsen, CEO at eVisit

It's the phrase every physician has heard 10,000 times: "patient satisfaction." The industry is all about it. Many practices pour countless resources into improving it. But raising patient satisfaction is often an elusive goal, and not always the best primary focus for improving your medical practice.

Obviously physicians want their patients to be satisfied with their care. But there’s a better way to improve the quality of care (and, indirectly, patient satisfaction).

How? Follow the philosophy of Southwest Airlines and put your employees first. In our “the-customer-is-always-right” society, this might seem unorthodox. But as Emergency physician Thomas Paine writes on the KevinMD blog, medical practices who choose to go against the grain and follow this philosophy could see real results. In an industry with rampant physician burnout and undervalued staff, a renewed focus on supporting providers and medical practice staff can be key to raising the quality of care.

Here are a few ideas from the Southwest philosophy to try out in your practice.

1) Remember that your staff, not patients, are the experts.

The majority of your practice's patients aren’t and won't be doctors. Even with the patient education resources you provide, they won't be experts, so don't allow them to bully your employees. Having a "customer is always right" mentality is one of the most destructive business models. That's true for medical practices as well as companies like Southwest.

Kai Falkenberg at Forbes describes what happens when patients call the shots, so to speak. "Giving patients exactly what they want, versus what the doctor thinks is right, can be very bad medicine," she writes. "Last February researchers at UC Davis, using data from nearly 52,000 adults, found that the most satisfied patients spent the most on health care and prescription drugs. They were 12% more likely to be admitted to the hospital and accounted for 9% more in total health care costs. Strikingly, they were also the ones more likely to die."

Remember, giving a patient what they want in the moment, rather than what will help them most, destroys any long-term satisfaction. Encourage your employees to follow their judgment, and if patients come to you with complaints, provide additional educational resources so they can better understand their doctors' decisions.

2) Treat your staff like humans, not human resources.

Why did you hire the providers and other staff on your team? Was it because of their focus on patient satisfaction and ability to people-please, or was it because they had compassion, ingenuity, and a perseverance that amazed you? Chances are, you assembled your team based on their values and abilities. Put faith in that. Support them however you can. Remember that when you're evaluating performance and giving feedback.

Your employees aren't "human resources," they're humans. As David Hassell, CEO at 15Five, writes: "[Humans] have complex emotional, physical, and mental systems that must be understood and nurtured in order to facilitate their self-actualization. Resources on the other hand are valuable company assets that must be maintained, catalogued, and put to use in a way that proves their worth or they are quickly replaced." Anyone can please a patient, but great physicians can help patients while giving them confidence in their care. Reward your doctors for doing just that.

In fact, reward and praise your staff every day. According to Rodd Wagner and Jim Harter at Gallup, one of the top elements of great management is praise and recognition for doing good work. As one of the least-expensive aspects of any practice management strategy, it shouldn't be neglected--and it gets real results. Wagner and Harter write, "Variation in [employee praise] is responsible for 10% to 20% differences in productivity and revenue and thousands of loyal customers to most large organizations. In one large healthcare organization, a difference of 10 percentage points on the recognition statement represented an average difference of 11% on patients' evaluations of their experience."

Acknowledging your staff's hard work is a great way to insure higher patient evaluations across the board, and will give your team peace of mind when they fall into a rough situation with a stubborn patient. Let your staff know you have their back, and they'll feel more confident in their skills and decisions.

3) Let some patients walk away.

Gordon Bethune is most notable for his 1998 book "From Worst to First" detailing his revamp of Continental Airlines. In one anecdote from the book, Bethune describes a passenger whose child wore a hat decorated with offensive emblems that made employees uncomfortable. When the passenger complained repeatedly about being required to remove the hat, Bethune stood by his employees.

"The fact is that some customers are just plain wrong, that businesses are better of without them, and that managers siding with unreasonable customers over employees is a very bad idea, that results in worse customer service," Bethune writes.

Southwest’s approach takes this idea to heart, and so should you. There are a lot of instances where your patients can be plain wrong. Whether they insist on unnecessary testing or medications, give providers bad reviews when they don’t receive the medical advice they want, or refuse to follow treatment plans (or get vaccinated), some patients just aren’t a good fit. They’re not going to be satisfied no matter what you do. While everyone has a right to care, indulging these patients or putting their desires before the recommendations and well-being of yourself or other providers isn’t the way to go. Tell them that or encourage them to find a different physician. Emphasize that you want them to find the right fit, but that isn’t with your practice.

Start putting yourself and your staff first. Watch the results. A happier staff who feels valued is more likely to make a better practice and provide better patient care. Your patients will feel the change.

Have you tossed "the customer's always right?" What policy do you use to please patients and staff? Tell us in the comments!



Published: June 9, 2015