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Patients are not customers at all

Patients are not customers at all


Patients are not customers at all


Have you ever stopped to think about what differentiates a patient of your practice from a customer of a business?

Although the words are used interchangeably in health care, there is a difference between a customer and a patient.


The word “patient” dates back to the 14th century and comes from Latin present participles of pati, “to suffer.” A “patient” is “a sick individual” who seeks treatment from a physician, a circumstance that most people (including doctors) find unpleasant and hope is only temporary.

A “customer” in 15th century was a tax collector, but in modern usage, a customer is someone who “purchases some commodity or service.” 


The customer service model is very popular. Entire lectures and conferences exist to enforce this “enlightened” way to view patient care. We understand the drive, to an extent. The people we see in our hospitals and clinics need to feel valued and need to feel we are competent and caring. This matters especially in highly competitive markets because the ones who are happy keep coming back.

But healthcare is not like other businesses and patients are unlike other kinds of customers.

Research shows that “patients are more trusting of, and committed to, practitioners who adopt an empowering communication style with them,” which suggests “that empowering patients presents a means to improve the patient–practitioner relationship.”


So, what’s necessary to improve the patient experience?

Make your practice look and feel engaging

Patients will judge your practice before they even meet you. Making a good impression starts with a well-designed online presence, a welcoming, appealing, clean, and comfortable clinic with amenities to ensure patients feel cared for and important, in both the reception area and the examination room.

Honor patients with respect and attention

Staff must commit to give patients the attention they deserve throughout the touchpoints of their visit; from the time the patient arrives for a scheduled appointment until the time they leave at the end of the visit. Make sure all staff are trained to consistently provide a specific standard of service established, and make sure to hold them accountable. This means measuring how well you are delivering on your promise to meet a standard of care and service.

Improve communication at every step of the patient visit

This means answering phones promptly with enthusiasm, introducing yourself to patients, and being helpful and willing to answer all of their questions. If you don’t have the answer, get it, and never say no to a patient. Make good eye contact and smile. Listen for and look for cues from your patients. If they seem restless be reassuring, if they are worried be comforting and confident. At the end of the patient’s interaction be sure to ask is there is anything else you can do for them today. Your job and the patient’s experience depend on every member of the team putting the patient’s needs first.

Make ease-of-access a top priority

his starts with a well-managed appointment scheduling system that has realistic templates. It means understanding demand and preparing for it by having enough available appointments, based on historical same-day demand. It means starting on time and ending on time. It means keeping the office and the phone lines open during the lunch break. This can be done by staggering staff schedules (start times, end times, and lunch breaks) between physicians and staff members.

Also build in accountability by tracking patient access. Know when the next available appointments are and require your appointment schedulers to communicate when demand shifts, and appointment needs are being compromised.

Commit to timeliness

Be prompt in answering phone calls, don’t keep patients on hold more than 30 seconds, and don’t jockey them around from one person to the other. Also be diligent in returning phone calls and e-mails within a standard time frame. Communicate the established timeframe to providers, staff, and patients. Again, this reinforces accountability.

Timeliness typically suffers the most when patients are kept waiting for their appointments. Check them in promptly and let them know how long they are likely to wait.


Patients have very basic needs. They want to feel as if they are the most important people on the staff’s mind. They want to be kept informed, talked to (not at) and to be active participants in their own treatment.


Healthcare professional must be dedication to their patients: to care for them, to listen to them, and to give them the best treatment required. A patient-practitioner relationship implies shared decision making using the medical knowledge paired with the patients’ values and needs.

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