The Pampered Patient: Bringing Five-star Customer Service to Radiology
As patients become empowered and act more like consumers, customer service plays a key role in practice survival. On the surface, this translates into radiology departments and imaging centers offering amenities, such as cushier waiting areas. However, patient satisfaction in radiology runs much deeper than that.

Radiologists have not done a good job of selling the assets they bring to the table, says Michael Brant-Zawadzki, MD, executive medical director of the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Calif. They have failed to market themselves to patients, who generally have little understanding of radiologists’ involvement in diagnosis.

Hoag Neurosciences has resisted the status quo and adopted a patient-service-oriented practice model. “We look at the entire cycle of care from the phone call to schedule the exam to the report delivery process,” says Brant-Zawadzki. Hoag sets expectations with patients for wait time and communicates any delays. Technologists explain the procedure to patients and the center strives to turnaround reports as quickly as possible—most are ready in as few as five minutes after the procedure.

At your service

While efficient report turnaround and limited wait time are important, some patient satisfaction strategies have become more extravagant. From warm bath robes to massages, the imaging experience may feel more like a trip to the Four Seasons thanks to facilities like Imaging Center Braselton in Hoschton, Ga., and Imaging Center Gainesville, both part of the Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS).

The Braselton facility is on the site where a new hospital is being constructed, so it was important to establish expectations for a high level of care among members of the community, says Debbie Duke, director of imaging services for NGHS.
“We wanted the experience to be patient-centric, modeling a five-star hotel right off the ground.”

That means women coming in for a mammogram or an ultrasound can expect robes and a spa-like waiting area. In the mammography suite, a lighted panel displays soothing scenery to take patients’ minds off the procedure. Two days a week, a massage therapist provides onsite services.

Staff members at NGHS’ imaging centers look the part, dressed in uniforms befitting of a hotel concierge. All employees complete a rigorous customer service course featuring role playing exercises and tests. “They come out knowing our expectations for customer service,” says Duke.

In 2010, the Imaging Center Braselton received the “Excellence through Insight” patient satisfaction award from HealthStream Research, a firm that conducts customer service surveys across the U.S. From October 2009 through September 2010, 96.5 percent of the imaging center’s patients gave the facility either a nine or a 10 on a 10-point satisfaction scale, putting it in the 99th percentile of HealthStream Research’s database.

At the 2011 Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) meeting, Volney Van Dalsem, MD, medical director of outpatient imaging at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., shared some secrets to success at his facility, which, like Braselton, is renowned for customer service and atmosphere.

The center was designed with the patient in mind. Attached to the main waiting area for imaging patients at Stanford is an education center with informative videos playing on a loop, along with educational brochures explaining various imaging modalities.

Stanford measures metrics such as time-on-hold and dropped calls to identify and address problem areas in the scheduling process.

Customer service also means making adjustments for different patient populations with varied needs. Children undergoing imaging at Braselton can interact with a model CT scanner that lets them push a doll through the system, simulating the CT experience, while a video explains the process in kid-friendly terms. Duke said the facility is located next to a retirement community, and a golf cart pathway will be developed along with the new hospital, so residents can drive themselves to appointments.

Know your customer

With imaging centers experimenting with a seemingly endless array of patient satisfaction strategies, how does a practice determine if it is on track to meet its patient satisfaction goals? Fortunately, gauging patient satisfaction can be as simple as asking directly.

Duke says NGHS always had patients in mind as it added amenities. The practice conducted interviews with members of the community and researched Ritz-Carlton hotels to learn about the five-star experience as it designed the facility and developed its patient satisfaction program.

Hoag tracks patient satisfaction with surveys, which provide an ideal tool to assess success after a program is off the ground. In an article published in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology, Frank J. Lexa, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, and Jonathan W. Berlin, MD, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., gave some tips on designing a survey, including:
Keep answer time short, fewer than five minutes if possible. “A 20- to 30-minute survey will not be well-received by busy, working people regardless of how it is administered,” wrote Lexa and Berlin.
  • Begin with the end in mind. Radiology practices should know how the data will be used and design the questions accordingly.
  • Encourage patients to complete surveys before they leave the facility. This is good practice as the return rate on take-home surveys is often low.
  • Do include open-ended questions, but don’t include demographic data. The former allows for more patient input while the latter wastes time and is unnecessary in most cases.
In some markets, it may be easy to fall into the one upmanship trap, with practices attempting to outdo each other with extravagant offerings. However, a successful customer service program is primarily about the relationship with the patients, not necessarily the physical amenities, says Brant-Zawadzki.

The goal should be to make patients feel more comfortable, safe, cared for and welcome. “Acknowledge them when they come in and acknowledge what they’re there for, assuage anxiety, tell them they’ll be taken care of,” says Brant-Zawadzki. “All of that is more important than a beautiful painting on the wall or nice carpet or fancy chairs.”

While that may be true, a good massage is never a bad thing either.