Transforming customer service in healthcare, with health educator Jennifer FitzPatrick

We don’t usually consider healthcare providers as being in the customer service business – they’re providing medical treatment, after all, not answering questions about a software subscription or helping to sort out a banking query.

And yet, there is a huge amount of overlap between customer service and healthcare – ultimately, both involve providing the best possible experience to the people you’re trying to help.

Indeed, there are an awful lot of best practices that the healthcare profession can learn from customer service – the ways in which we listen to and address people’s questions and concerns is fundamental to gaining their trust. For people preparing for surgery or having to move into assisted living, building trust is absolutely critical.

“Whether you’re doing surgery or fixing someone’s internet connection, the fundamentals are the same – genuine empathy for the customer goes a long way.”

Whether you’re doing surgery or fixing someone’s internet connection, the fundamentals are the same – genuine empathy for the customer goes a long way. And the result? Even the most anxious clients can relax and become more trusting.

Today’s guest, Jennifer FitzPatrick, calls for reimagining customer service in healthcare.

For the past two decades, Jennifer has worked across a myriad of departments in the healthcare industry – from admin, marketing, and sales to hands-on clinical work as a psychotherapist. She’s a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University, CEO of Jenerations Health Education, and author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One and her most recent, Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare.

In this episode, we caught up with Jennifer to talk about simple strategies that can transform customers “from hateful to grateful.”

Here are some of the key takeaways, applicable not only in healthcare settings, but in any customer service interaction:

  • Creating a welcoming and comforting environment in healthcare not only leads to improved clinical outcomes but it reduces malpractice risks, bad reviews, and other administrative burdens.
  • Mixed messages during the pandemic have eroded trust in health institutions, causing people to question even tried and true, scientifically sound practices.
  • To rebuild trust and create strong connections with patients and clients, it’s essential to encourage patient participation and view the treatment process as a partnership.
  • Prioritizing employee well-being and treating them with respect is crucial for organizations to build loyalty and drive both employee and customer satisfaction.
  • When dealing with challenging patients, it can help to acknowledge potential underlying issues, be nice and empathetic, adhere to organization policies, and avoid power struggles.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Beyond clinical outcomes and bottom lines

Liam Geraghty: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty. Today, we are looking at a very specific area of customer service, one that touches all of us at some point during our lives, and that’s healthcare. I’m delighted to be joined by Jennifer FitzPatrick, author of the new book Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare. Jennifer has worked in healthcare since she was 16, so she has a wealth of insight into customer service in this unique space. Jennifer, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you.

Jennifer FitzPatrick: Thanks so much, Liam.

“I’ve done almost everything you can imagine, from administrative work to marketing and sales to actual clinical work”

Liam: I’d love to hear a bit about your career journey to this point. As I mentioned, you started in this space when you were 16. Where did you start?

Jennifer: Well, I worked in a nursing home when I was 16, back when it was really hard to get a job in healthcare. It was a fabulous learning experience to work at a nursing home. I worked as a receptionist but really enjoyed being around the residents. And so, if someone needed help with the residents, I would be brought in – with very little training. I got training on the job. I really enjoyed working with older adults and in the healthcare space, so I wound up majoring in social work. My big goal at that point was to be a nursing home administrator. I didn’t even realize that there were all these other things that you could do. I got a degree in social work, got a master’s degree in social work, and, of course, found out that the healthcare space is so much bigger. I’ve done almost everything you can imagine, from administrative work to marketing and sales to actual clinical work. I’ve been a therapist. I’ve been in so many different aspects of healthcare.

About 20 years ago, I started teaching in college as an adjunct in Health Sciences gerontology. From there, I opened up my speaking and consulting business. I’ve had the pleasure of working with all kinds of hospitals, senior living, hospice, home care, and doctor’s offices, and it’s been amazing to watch healthcare change in these three decades.

Liam: You have a new book – Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare. Why did you want to write it in the first place?

“Customer service is an art. Healthcare is a science, but it’s also a business. And I wanted to talk about the art of healthcare”

Jennifer: I wrote a first book called Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One, and that book was for people like you and me who are taking care of an older loved one or family member that’s sick. That was for the consumer. And I wanted to come at healthcare from the angle of the people providing the care. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to talk to their leaders, CEOs, Chief Operating Officers. I wanted to know every level of what you can do if somebody is a patient or client or resident. But also for families – how do you make the experience better?

Customer service is an art. Healthcare is a science, but it’s also a business. And I wanted to talk about the art of healthcare because a lot of administrators and chief executives think about the bottom line, which they’re supposed to, and the clinicians think, “If you have a broken bone, we want to fix the bone.” That’s the science and the business part. The art part is: How do you make that person feel comfortable? How do you make it so that person isn’t terrified?

Liam: In the introduction to the book, you give this stark statement, which is that your patients and clients hate that they need you. Why is that?

Jennifer: If you’re interfacing with any health or mental health provider, you don’t want to be there. If you have a urinary tract infection, you wish you didn’t. If you have depression, you wish you didn’t. If you were in a horrible car accident, you are not happy that that happened. And so, they hate the idea that they need us. No one’s saying, “Yes, I get to move my mom to assisted living,” or, “Awesome, I get to go have surgery.” Nobody’s thinking that. Whereas for other areas of customer service, like going shopping at Nordstrom, you can really enjoy that. You look forward to walking around, even if you don’t buy anything. It’s window shopping; it’s fun. It’s not the same thing in healthcare. And so, we have a lot more to live up to. The stakes are much higher.

Patients as partners

Liam: Is it possible to turn that around and have customers or patients be, as you say, grateful instead of hateful?

Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. When we go in, we’re not feeling comfortable. We’re worried, stressed, anxious – a lot of times, we’re beating ourselves up, “I should have lost weight,” “I should have stopped smoking,” or, “I shouldn’t have been driving so fast.” When somebody says, “Hey, these things happen to people. We can help you,” and we get into that head space where we’re able to calm the person and make them feel welcome, not only do their clinical outcomes improve – science has demonstrated they actually get better faster – they’re going to write better reviews for you and complain less, so fewer pains in the neck for you to have to deal with as administrators dealing with phone calls and online reviews. There’s also less chance there’s going to be malpractice, which everybody wants. So yeah, there’s a lot of opportunity. It’s not just what’s in it for the patient but what’s in it for you. What makes your business or your organization run smoother?

“It only takes a little bit of energy to build rapport and make the person feel more comfortable. And the data demonstrates that when you do that, you actually get better clinical outcomes”

Liam: I imagine there are probably healthcare leaders and clinicians out there who believe they should just focus on the clinical outcomes and that there’s no point in improving customer service. What would you say to those folks?

Jennifer: It only takes a little bit of energy to build rapport and make the person feel more comfortable. And the data demonstrates that when you do that, you actually get better clinical outcomes. It’s all interdependent. So yes, you can heal the broken bone or perform the surgery beautifully, but if that person goes into the surgery and feels comfortable, like they’re in good hands, the outcomes are better. As you said, Liam, so many people are like, “This is a bunch of crap. I didn’t go to charm school – I went to medical school.” But for those people, I say it does make a difference.

Liam: I’d love to talk about COVID for a minute. There were so many new policies introduced during the pandemic. How has that impacted the client’s or patient’s mindset?

Jennifer: A lot of trust in the United States has been lost because there were so many mixed messages. And frankly, Liam, from day one, I was outspoken that the leadership was panicked. Nobody was like, “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get through this.” I never heard that from a leader. It was all, “You should be scared.” Everybody has their own opinion on what happened in the last three years, but even if it was the bubonic plague, I would’ve liked to have seen the leaders say, “Listen, we’re going to be okay,” to have a calm message. And that did not happen.

Robert Wood Johnson from Harvard did a big study in the middle of 2021, when we were halfway through all this, that the trust in CDC, FDA, and NIH went down. And that has an impact. Forget about the COVID stuff – forget about masks, COVID vaccines, and lockdowns. Now, some people are like, “Okay, are they right about getting a mammogram? Are they right about childhood vaccines?” Because there’s distrust, a lot of people are rethinking things that are backed up by science.

Liam: Totally. How do you go about transforming the mindset of those people? How do healthcare professionals go about doing that? It’s such a big challenge.

“I don’t think it’s ever fair to say the patient should just do what we say. They deserve to participate”

Jennifer: You need to listen. First of all, forget about the baby boomers and older. The oldest of our population, to a certain extent, still have a very strong deference to physicians and healthcare providers. Why? Because that age group is the least academically educated out of every population that’s ever lived. They have this mindset that they know better. Every generation that’s come after does not have that same deference. They do their own reading. Now, I know a lot of docs and healthcare providers will say, “Don’t look up your symptoms.” And that’s good advice for a lot of people, especially if they have an anxiety problem. But let’s say your client or patient comes in and says, “I read this journal article about what my condition is,” or, “I read a book by an expert about something that my loved one’s going through,” and they want to discuss it – do not blow them off. It’s really quite insulting.

During the pandemic, I think we heard people say, “You’ve got to listen to the experts. They have to have an MD.” Think about it. When I go to see my financial professional, I don’t just blindly say, “Oh, I’ll do anything you want.” That’s silly. I need to participate in the conversation with my financial professional. What are my goals? What are my risk tolerances? It’s your money; it’s your retirement. The same is to be said when you interact with your health or mental health professional. It’s your body; it’s your life. I don’t think it’s ever fair to say the patient should just do what we say. They deserve to participate. And I hate to say this because a lot of healthcare providers are very resistant to this idea, but healthcare providers are very busy. You might have read more about the topic than they have, especially if they’re in a primary care situation. Primary care doctors have to treat chickenpox, but they also have to treat broken bones and multiple sclerosis. If you’ve got, say, allergies to a certain food, maybe you’ve really read more about allergies to that food than that doc. So, I think it’s about partnership. It shouldn’t be this authoritative attitude.

A case of contagious camaraderie

Liam: You don’t usually hear people in healthcare saying they want something to be contagious, but something worth spreading that you say in your book is what you call a contagious camaraderie culture. What do you mean by that?

Jennifer: You can’t do any of this until you have a team that feels good about working at your organization. A lot of organizations say, “Ah, our reviews are bad,” or, “We just got dinged in a survey – we’ve got to fix this.” And it’s all interdependent. You’ve got to make sure your team feels good about working there. I write a lot about my experiences working in healthcare when I wasn’t treated, at least in my opinion, like a human being. For example, I was going through a caregiving situation. I had a death in the family, there wasn’t a lot of grace given to me during this situation, and I didn’t feel like I could give my best to our patients during that time.

That’s just common sense. People are not in the headspace to fix customer service or make the experience better until they feel like they’re being taken care of. And I think a lot of Gen Xers and boomers and traditionalists who are still in the workplace are, I think, a little jealous of the millennials and the Gen Zs that come into the workplace and say, “Treat me like a person,” because we came into the workplace and just did what we were told. I think we’re learning a lot from younger generations on how to treat people better. But there’s still a little bit of “you should pay your dues” nonsense that older generations sometimes do.

“The more you invest in treating your team the way you would hope to treat your patients, the more they’re going to give you”

Liam: For healthcare providers listening to us, how can they put all of this together? What do their teams need to know?

Jennifer: They need to truly feel that you and your organization care about them, that they’re not just a body filling a task, that you know them as a human being. You have to have certain standards, but they need to believe that if they have a real personal emergency, you’re going to treat them like a person. They have a sick child, they’re sick themselves, or they have a caregiving situation. I’ve seen people be shortsighted about that – they don’t want to give a little grace.

The more you invest in treating your team the way you would hope to treat your patients, the more they’re going to give you and the more loyal they’ll be when they go to Glassdoor and other websites to write about their experience. If they leave and go somewhere else, they’re going to write nice things. They’re not going to say, “Avoid this employer like the plague.” I interviewed 20 C-suite execs for the book, and lots of organizations are doing really cutting-edge stuff. For example, there’s a senior living organization called Silverado, and they have a policy on bringing your kids to work. I’m not saying that would work everywhere, but they’re making it a possibility. Think about that, not having to worry about childcare. It’s not just bring your kids in and they run rampant – it’s a benefit that they are allowing some employees to utilize.

Diffusion tension

Liam: What advice would you give people experiencing those clients or patients who are, as you say in the book, hateful no matter what?

Jennifer: The first thing is to try to figure it out. If somebody’s always complaining, they’re never happy, they’re calling you at all hours, and you feel like you’re never going to satisfy them, one thing is to try to figure out why. It might not have anything to do with why you’re treating them. You might be treating them for a broken leg, but their behavior could be because of a substance abuse problem. It could be a mental health problem, a personality disorder, narcissism, borderline. There could be so many different reasons. Try to pinpoint what could be going on with this person and acknowledge it. You don’t necessarily need to acknowledge it to that person, depending on what you’re treating them for, but you do need to acknowledge, “Okay, this is probably somebody that’s got something else going on. We’re not here to help them with their narcissism – we’re here to help them with their broken foot. We just need to acknowledge it.”

“Just because there’s something going on with that person, that doesn’t mean that basic customer service doesn’t de-escalate it a little bit”

Also, get everybody on the same page. Don’t allow the staff to be split on how to manage the situation. Let’s say your organization only has hours from 9:00 to 5:00, and your policy is that people must go to the hospital after five o’clock. Don’t make exceptions. If this person’s contacting you, remind them you’re out-of-office, and tell them to please call the emergency room or go to the emergency department.

So, being on the same page and acknowledging if there’s something else going on with this person. Plus, you still want to use the basic customer service principles I talk about in Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare. You still want to be nice. You still want to smile. You still want to be polite. You still want to treat them like a human being. Just because there’s something going on with that person, that doesn’t mean that basic customer service doesn’t de-escalate it a little bit.

The other thing is to not get into a power struggle. I think our countertransference sometimes gets triggered where maybe you had a parent or an ex-spouse that behaved like that and, “Oh, I’m not going to take this crap from this person.” And you wind up in a power struggle. That can lead to a lot of problems, including malpractice claims.

Liam: Some of the stuff you mentioned leads to my next question. We have so many customer support leaders from all kinds of industries who watch and listen to this show, and I was wondering if you think there are any lessons from customer service in healthcare that folks in other industries would find useful.

“We can take that lesson back to all our industries: making eye contact, smiling”

Jennifer: I’m so glad you asked that, Liam, because I believe this book is for everybody. To me, healthcare is the hardest to make people feel good and satisfied. There are so many lessons where you can say, “I can apply this to my restaurant. I can apply this to my funeral home. I can apply this to my plumbing business,” because it’s way harder to please somebody who’s just coming out of surgery than it is to please somebody who you’re coming in to fix their cable or internet because the problems are typically much simpler. The people are less stressed out. I know an internet outage seems like the end of the world, but it’s not heart surgery.

The other thing I want to share that I think is relevant to every industry is that there is this big study about Yelp reviews and surgeons where people reviewed their surgeons. They’re sending a nasty email to the hospital administrator. And it’s not that their heart didn’t work or that their bone didn’t get fixed – it’s because the surgeon wasn’t nice to them. We can take that lesson back to all our industries: making eye contact, smiling. I do so many trainings and keynotes about this, and I will get people rolling their eyes. I’m telling you, if you don’t observe your staff doing it, they’re not doing it.

AI: the empathy upgrade

Liam: 100%. Before we wrap up, I have to ask you about AI. What are your thoughts on how AI might transform customer service and support in healthcare?

Jennifer: Well, you’ve probably already seen the study that indicated that AI was giving more empathic responses to patients than actual…

Liam: No, I hadn’t seen that. Wow.

“It can definitely be a really good tool when empathy and bedside manner isn’t a natural part of your personality”

Jennifer: Which is scary. Because they already started out with, “Oh, hi. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.” How often does your provider say that to you? They’re saying that right away. They’re not just like, “All right, let’s get down to business.” And again, a lot of time, it’s about just taking that energy and saying, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” I think it’s potentially going to be a great tool, especially for people for whom it doesn’t come naturally. Some of us are more naturally empaths than others. It can definitely be a really good tool when empathy and bedside manner isn’t a natural part of your personality, and that’s okay. It can be developed. I think it’ll be interesting to see where AI takes us.

Liam: I never thought of that angle; it could be super useful. Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Jennifer: Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare is on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and anywhere books are sold. And also I would love to hear from you.

Liam: Jennifer, thank you so much for talking with me today.

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