In the first blog article of this series, I wrote about my own recent healthcare journey. After undergoing life-saving lung surgery, there I was: in a hospital bed, grateful to be alive and recently off my ventilator — shades of the film “Alien” if you’ve never had the pleasure.
And all I had on my hands was time. Time to think. Time to observe. (Also, time to despise urinal bottles.)
But mostly time to listen. I’m not an outgoing type of person, so I do some of my best interpersonal interactions through listening and responding.
After a consumer converts, this is the basic essence of the patient experience: The patient listens to the provider’s instructions and decides how to respond — comply or not. For the most part, I had a good patient experience during my hospital stay. But a few incidents reminded me that a sound digital strategy only gets the patient in the door; the rest is up to your care team.
Good night, nurse
For example, on my first night after being off my ventilator, I was under the care of a nurse from the intensive care unit (ICU). Unfortunately, because of a lack of rooms in the ICU, I had to stay in the surgical unit.
My nurse was doing her last shift that night. She was burned out from caring for patients with COVID-19. And she was leaving to do something less stressful. She made sure to tell me so. Constantly. All night.
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I sympathized — truly. The pandemic has been hard, and nurses have borne more than their fair share of the burden. But when my medicines are late and I can’t get help with my pain because my nurse “can’t find anything in this godforsaken surgical unit,” that’s a serious problem.
Physician, humanize thyself
On the doctor side, most of my providers were great. I came to appreciate my infectious-disease physician’s good-natured frustration with all the negative results from her intense testing — “Still nothing from our cultures today, Michael. But I keep looking!”
One physician, on the other hand, was aloof and distant compared to his colleagues. He rarely asked how I was feeling. He never seemed to listen when I reported my experience with physical therapy. And he actually laughed at me when I told him my goal was to go home without having to use oxygen tanks. “I can guarantee you that’s not happening!” he said.
Not only was my goal fanciful, he said, but I’d also actually not be going home anytime soon. Instead, I’d likely need to go to a recovery facility for a few weeks — maybe a couple months. It would be tough, he said, but think of how much better I’d feel in the long run!
I couldn’t think about the long run. I wanted to go home to my wife and son, not to some rehab facility. I was scared and upset, but my protests went unacknowledged. I anxiously awaited my next meeting with my hospitalist the next morning and relayed what I’d learned. He rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to him,” the hospitalist said. “He tries that crap all the time.” So much for team-based care.
I know some people who would set social media on fire, publicly shaming and excoriating this organization until justice was done. That’s not me. I reported the incidents to patient-care advocates and didn’t make a big scene. But I’ll remember. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Consumer service = happier patients
One nurse or one physician can do more to set back your healthcare organization’s retention efforts than any outreach campaign can overcome. It’s not enough to have great healthcare. Now more than ever, patients think of themselves as consumers, and they — we — demand excellent consumer service.
You can take steps on the digital side to help humanize your providers before consumers become patients. While credentials and education are important information in provider biographies, leave space to include information about them as people — their families, hobbies, interests and so forth. But without good training and the ability to connect and empathize with the patients you serve, your providers can easily drive both current and future patients away.
Probably my favorite physician on my team is one of my surgeons, and not just because of her excellent work (though it was excellent). What sealed the deal was the glimpse I got of her as a person when she mused about maintaining a long-distance relationship with her partner and how rough that was. Having gone through that with my now-wife during our college years, I found something to relate to.
Two people. Not an all-powerful physician dictating to the meek patient. Just two people chatting.
Relationship-building is key to long-term patient retention. But we haven’t yet touched on what I think is the key to the success — or failure — of healthcare going forward. We’ll get to that in my next article.