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Patients vs. Customers: Communicating with All Your Audiences to Maximize the Patient Experience

Posted By Elizabeth Ziemba, Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Updated: Monday, November 11, 2013

Providing a comprehensive and superior quality patient experience requires identifying and communicating with all of your audiences. Technology, a changing and competitive healthcare environment, increasingly sophisticated consumers and other factors have muddied the discussions leading to confusion about "patients,” "customers” and "clients.” Often these terms are used interchangeably. Clear communication requires an understanding of all of your audiences and using language that is tailored to their individual needs. Here is a suggested framework to sweep away the clutter.

The word "customer” refers collectively to all members of all your audience. It is the broadest term with the widest reach across all your communication channels. "Customers” include patients; the family and friends of your patients; staff, co-workers and colleagues; external services and lost leads.

Patients are the easiest group to define. They are the individuals who receive health and wellness services and to whom you owe specific legal duties and obligations governed by the laws of where the services are provided. They are at the heart of your organization and the reason it exists.

An extremely influential group of people is family members or friends who know the patient and are engaged in the decision making process. They may accompany the patients to the place of service and observe the entire patient experience process. The patient experience also refers to how family members and friends are treated and how they observe patients being treated. Have you ever had the situation where a patient became upset because a family member or friend was treated rudely?

Your customers are also staff such as your co-workers and colleagues. "Co-workers” are the people within your organization with whom you work either directly or indirectly. Your co-workers are the people in other departments who impact the patient experience. Strong, positive relationships are essential with other internal departments including patient services; public relations; translation and interpretation; finance and billing; marketing and the legal department. Excellent customer service requires that you work together as a team serving all of your audiences.

"Colleagues” are other professionals and associates within your field. You may know them personally or have indirect contact with them through associations or social media like LinkedIn. They contribute to the quality of the patient experience offered by your organization by what they say, write or post about you or your organization. They are often a source of referrals who influence where people receive medical services.


Rude behavior seems to have become a favorite national pastime that has a huge negative impact on the patient experience. Here are the results of a 2012 poll administered by Monster.com, a US nationwide job search site. About 71% of all US co-workers including healthcare workers were rated to be "somewhat” to "downright rude.” How would you rate your co-workers? How would your customers rate the members of your organization?

How co-workers treat each other impacts the patient experience. There is an excellent book called The Cost of Bad Behavior that examines the effect of rude and offensive behavior by co-workers on patients and other by-standers. The research may surprise you. Simply witnessing (as opposed to being the object of) bad behavior has a negative impact that lasts a long time.

The next audience to consider is your "external services.” These individuals and organizations are the links in the chain that bring the patient and his or her family and friends to you and return them home safely. What are some of the external links in the your customer service chain interacting with your customers? They may include hotels, transportation services and restaurants recommended by your organization.

While you may have less control over how these services are delivered to your customers, there are ways to manage these relationships. Remember that negative experiences resulting from interactions with external service providers will influence the patient and customer experience.

The final category to consider is "lost leads.” Lost leads are individuals who contact your organization but take their business elsewhere.

Lost leads may result from a variety of reasons: Telephones that are not answered or not answered properly; calls that are disconnected; callers put on hold for too long; calls that are transferred to the wrong department; telephone messages that are not returned promptly or not returned at all; emails that bounce; emails that are not answered at all; web site links that don’t work; incorrect telephone numbers listed to call and more. All of these frustrating experiences are reasons for people to take their business elsewhere, complain about your organization and post negative remarks on social media sites. Work with your marketing department to contact these people and find out what type of customer experience they had. Their stories are a fantastic source of information about where your organization is failing to deliver customer service and why people are taking their business elsewhere.

Delivering a high quality patient and customer experience requires sophisticated communication with all of your audiences. While the focus of healthcare providers must be superior clinical care, ignoring any of your audiences risks poor patient and customer experiences.

Elizabeth Ziemba is the President of Medical Tourism Training. Ms. Ziemba has worked as a consultant to various medical tourism businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies, focusing on developing and implementing marketing and market research as well as customer-service solutions. As a skilled writer, she has published extensively on various business topics including medical tourism and uses her writing abilities to oversee course content development for the company. Her focus on practical solutions based on years of business experience provide tangible benefits to the company's clients.

Tags:  behavior  customer  family  patient experience  quality  staff 

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