Patients are customers, too

Customer service still matters in healthcare, because patients are customers, too.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor on

Many people don't realize that one of the nursing profession's highest callings is patient advocacy. That is, we're here to help our clients get healthy, stay healthy, and navigate the rough waters of the healthcare system. Sometimes, that means we nurses have to speak truth to medical power, and point out how practitioners could better treat their patients.

Today, on behalf of a client, I called a local clinic to find out if they had a particular vaccine available. I hadn't yet identified myself as an RN. I simply said, "Hi, I'm calling to find out if you have vaccine XYZ available."

The response I got back was, "What insurance do you have?"

I hadn't yet tried to make an appointment. I hadn't yet entered into a negotiation for services. I hadn't even asked a price. I had merely asked if the vaccine was available.

The implication was that if I didn't have suitable insurance, I couldn't get the vaccine. The implication was that I wasn't even worth talking to if I didn't have insurance.

Imagine this experience in the real world. You call your local office supply store and ask if they have ink in stock for your printer. Before answering, you're asked if you have a credit card.

Or, imagine you're thinking about buying a new 11-inch MacBook Air. You call your local Apple store and you're immediately asked if you have a corporate account, if that account is with an important enough corporation, and what credit balance you have.

You still don't know if the ink or the computer is in stock. Worse, you feel like you might be cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril if you give the wrong answer.

There is no doubt that healthcare providers need to be paid, and much of that money comes from insurance. But not all insurance is the same. For example, many ZDNet readers are consultants who pay for their own insurance, and don't have access to the kinds of group rates available to large employers.

Many people aren't aware that insurance can cost more per month than a car payment for a very sweet ride (or in some cases, more than a monthly mortgage payment). Small business or individually purchased insurance also usually has a relatively high deductable.

That was the case with my client today. He has a brand-name insurance provider, but because he consults on network installs for his own small company, his deductable is quite large. If he chooses to get the vaccination, he'll wind up paying out of pocket one way or another -- whether at the time of service, or when his insurance company processes the paperwork and sends him the bill for the balance.

But that didn't matter to the clinic.

It didn't matter that there are other providers in town, and that people have choices. They also didn't bother to find out that they were speaking to another healthcare professional, one who will now choose to recommend a different clinic -- one with nicer, more polite customer service policies. It didn't matter that they sent a message that patient care is much less important than their need to know whether a third party they're fond of is footing the bill.

Not only is their behavior nosy, it's inappropriate, and it's rude. Note to medical office personnel: there is a time for questions about insurance (hint...that time is not the first words out of your mouth), and there's a time for customer service. If you focus on the customer service aspect of the interaction, you may eventually get to ask your favorite questions about insurance.

Even though the healthcare business is huge, and it appears that many providers are making a lot of money, each provider is a business. The people they provide services to are customers. That's why there's a trend towards referring to you as clients now, and we're phasing out the practice of calling you patients. It's a little semantically clunky, and it seems disingenuous as long as the type of rudeness I encountered today prevails.

There is still choice in the medical industry.

That's a good lesson for any small business. Keep in mind that your customers will make a buying decision based on more than just price or availability. If you're a jerk, they may go somewhere else.

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