Customer service in healthcare is one of the most crucial and overlooked qualities of working as a health professional.
In healthcare, customer service goes by a lot of different names. “Patient satisfaction,” “client comfort,” and other titles are all used to describe the same fundamental question.
Did you give someone quality healthcare service?
But this is where it gets tricky — what does customer service actually look like in healthcare?
It’s easy to think of customer service as something that you get from a call center when your phone stopped working.
It’s so much more than that, though. It’s comfort, confidence, peace of mind, and even a sense of safety all wrapped into one concept.
As a result, it makes a world of difference in healthcare!
So how do you teach such an important concept that’s overlooked so frequently?
You can start with a solid explanation!
Explaining why customer service is important can be a major hurdle for health science students.
The best place to start is with facts.
As Dr. Jane Framingham writes in PsychCentral, positive thinking has an immense impact on the health and recovery capabilities of individual patients.
While it’s still unknown why positivity matters so much, it clearly does — even in the face of terminal illnesses like heart disease and HIV.
The probable reason is that negative thinking often increases stress, which is the last thing somebody needs when they’re in a healthcare environment.
Stress can counteract the valuable rest that someone needs to recover from non-terminal issues. High levels of stress may even be lethal for patients with a history of heart disease or stroke.
So how does this emotional and scientific information relate to something as corporate-sounding as “customer service?”
Customer service has two major tenets:
Solving someone’s problem is crucial in a healthcare environment because it could literally make the difference between life and death.
But “solving” is easier said than done. Sometimes, it’s a long road to recovery — if it’s possible at all.
In that regard, making someone feel at ease, happy, or cathartic becomes the next best option.
You’ll hear this in conventional customer service when a representative says “sorry” after you explain the issue you’re having with their product.
This isn’t by accident — they’re trying to strike a sympathetic chord with you, even though both of you know that it’s not the representative’s fault that you’re having a problem.
This isn’t a perfect analog for healthcare customer service. In healthcare, apologies don’t always yield positive results.
But going the extra mile — like apologizing for something, even when it’s not your personal fault — shows someone that their feelings are valid.
You reinforce that someone is correct in their thinking, and you endear yourself to someone who’s in a rough spot in their life.
In healthcare, you can deliver on this same level of customer service by showcasing good manners, avoiding contradictions, and speaking in plain terms (instead of precise medical jargon).
In conventional customer service, apologizing at least lets you know that the company is recognizing that it did something wrong.
In healthcare customer service, it comes back to communication and positive reinforcement.
Fortunately, this is easier to teach, learn, and practice than it may sound.
It comes down to one major factor: empathy.
Empathy is the practice of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their feelings.
It’s also something that your students can practice to become more aware of a patient’s emotional state.
How stressed are they? Could they be in a joking mood? Do they want to talk, or is it better to leave them be for now?
Recognizing these emotional qualities in a patient can make an enormous difference in their attitude and perception of their situation.
When you can observe someone’s emotional state and act accordingly, you may be able to have a quick conversation that helps them take their mind off of the problem at hand.
If you’re exceptionally empathic, you might even manage to change their overall mood!
The trick is teaching and practicing empathy to say the right thing at the right time.
Overall, this probably isn’t much of a surprise to you (or any other healthcare professional). Empathic people are naturally drawn to health careers because they want to help people.
Still, it never hurts to know that medical researchers have documented the importance of empathy. This brief write-up from Hawaii J Med Public Health discusses one medical student’s personal experiences with empathy, the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), and why it’s so crucial to teach (among other topics).
However, talking about empathy is just the beginning. It’s the lead-in to impactful customer service in general.
The next step is talking about how empathy leads to customer service behavior in different healthcare professions.
While every healthcare professional can have the goal of providing top-notch customer service to patients, it doesn’t always look the same from one career to the next.
A patient care technician, for example, has a completely different set of responsibilities from a licensed practical nurse.
Likewise, a doctor has a different daily schedule from an EKG technician.
As a result, the capabilities, responsibilities, and even legality of these roles will be different.
For a patient care technician, customer service may mean remembering a brand-new patient’s dietary restrictions, taking notes on a patient’s emotional health in addition to their physical wellbeing, or relaying special requests to proper hospital personnel.
This is because a patient care technician doesn’t have the same scope of work as someone like a doctor, surgeon, or registered nurse.
As a result, it would be inappropriate for a patient care technician to give commentary on a patient’s diagnosis, even if the patient asks for it.
But when it comes to day-to-day tasks, a patient care technician would be able to impact a client’s recovery in many other areas — even if it’s friendly conversation.
The same is true for an EKG technician. It’s not necessarily in their job description to make small-talk with patients — but a few kind words here and there can make a big difference in someone’s overall mood.
Even a simple smile is a gesture of customer service that can make a difference to someone.
But everything we’ve discussed so far is based on studies and third-party information.
There’s another essential part of a good customer service curriculum — your experience.
You’re a health science instructor because you’ve lived the occupation that you’re training students to perform.
That means you have a wealth of knowledge about what customer service actually looks like in a healthcare environment!
You can approach this a couple different ways, but the goal is always the same — giving real-life examples of what you’re teaching.
What were some of the best customer service experiences you provided in healthcare? How did your patients react? How did you feel in the moment?
Similarly, what were some experiences that went poorly? Was there a time that you strived to provide a good experience, but the patient rejected it? Did you ever have a time where everything just went wrong?
These two examples — and everything in between — can give your students the real-life examples and expectations of what customer service looks like in healthcare.
So with all of that said, we still have one final question to answer.
Where do you start?
Like we discussed earlier, most customer service education is relegated to concepts like tech support, problem-solving, or phone calls.
The trick is to take a customer service lesson plan and apply it to a healthcare setting.
With that, you just need a sample customer service lesson plan to get started.