Delivering Great Customer Service in the Healthcare Industry
Illustration by Lisa Engler

Every industry has its nuances. Perhaps there’s specific terminology to learn or a heavier focus on one type of metric over another. Often, customer service skills are transferable; however, in some cases there are significant differences that make things a bit more complicated.

Take healthcare, for example: Outside of differing cultural norms, there are also laws pertaining to things like storing information or interacting with customers. For those working support jobs in healthcare, it can be an especially difficult landscape to navigate.

Though healthcare is complex — and laws and regulations can vary widely depending on location — there are some key tips any team delivering customer service in healthcare can follow to set themselves up for success.

Why customer service is important in the healthcare industry

Healthcare support is a higher-stakes game than most. Managing an interaction where someone’s vintage Joanie Loves Chachi sweater was lost in the mail is very different from trying to figure out if someone’s insurance claim will be approved.

It’s not to say both aren’t tough in their own right, but one has further-reaching implications than the other. The gravity and potential impact of those interactions is what makes customer service in healthcare so important.

In fact, one study found patients who took a more active role in their healthcare actually perceived their health outcomes as more positive. And similar to other industries, positive interactions could also mean patients are more likely to continue using your services, which is good for everyone involved.

Also, the helpfulness of your customer service could serve as an indicator to potential patients of how good your other services are. If you’re not able to solve a billing issue or easily schedule an appointment, some may find themselves second-guessing whether or not they can trust you with taking care of their health needs.

5 ways to deliver great customer service in healthcare

Since most people are under duress when seeking out healthcare services, the last thing they need is more stress. By using the five tips below, you can improve your overall customer service and create better outcomes for everyone involved.

1. Create clear procedures for sensitive information

One of the primary considerations in healthcare is privacy. Currently, most countries have specific laws governing how health-related information is stored and shared, such as HIPAA in the U.S.

Since there are potential legal issues if an agent isn’t compliant with privacy laws, it’s important to emphasize them. The first step is having dedicated training during the onboarding process.

Make sure there’s easy and clear access to documentation covering different scenarios an agent might face and how to handle each of those situations as they relate to privacy.

Privacy compliance checklists are a good way to help agents learn and follow protocol. Focus on making the checklists comprehensive and straightforward; this isn’t the place for ambiguity or leaving anything open to interpretation.

Further, consider doing regular, ongoing training to refresh information for team members and to provide updates if there are any current or upcoming changes to any privacy laws.

Finally, do regular audits to make sure agents are complying with all privacy laws. In order to limit any disruption, consider doing staggered checks at regular intervals so everyone has time to plan and nothing comes out of left field.

2. Offer specialized training for difficult situations

There isn’t a customer service job free from stress. Anytime someone uses a product or service from a company, they have a certain expectation of that company. In healthcare, that expectation is incredibly high, and rightfully so.

The potential impact of decisions agents have to make can be — quite literally — life-altering. Along with that, the people they are serving may be very sick or perhaps in the grieving process.

Even if someone has experience working in support, they may not have the tools to handle the kinds of cases that come up when doing customer service in healthcare.

With that being the case, it’s paramount you give team members the tools they need to provide service in those situations. De-escalation training and resilience training are important, and you should also train agents to understand the limits of their role.

Since people working in support tend to be very empathetic, they may naturally want to go above and beyond for those who are struggling. Though that’s noble, it’s not sustainable. If they’re not careful, they could set themselves up to burn out very quickly.

Because of that, there should be training on how to decompress and cope with the potential emotional nature of the work. By giving staff the right tools, you encourage their own well-being and empower them to continually offer a high level of service.

3. Empower patients to help themselves

If you do customer service at any company, after a while you’ll notice there are certain requests that come up often. Maybe it’s resetting a password or updating an address on an account. In healthcare, it may be something like scheduling an appointment.

One of the best ways to improve anyone’s experience is by ensuring they don’t have to interact with customer service in the first place.

Though your support team may not be able to build a scheduling tool themselves, they can track those requests and use them as evidence to make new tools or update processes.

For example, if you’re an in-person clinic, you might set up a check-in station so patients don’t have to wait on staff to check them in. For those not in an in-person setting, investing in building out a robust knowledge base to let patients self-serve is a great approach to take.

In fact, one study found 80% of patients preferred physicians who had some sort of online scheduling. Any way you can empower those who are using your products or services to help themselves is a net positive for everyone.

4. Collect patient feedback

The best way to understand what someone needs from you is to ask. Feedback plays an important role in understanding where you’re excelling and where you can improve.

Since healthcare is so personal, it’s important to get as much feedback as possible so you can anticipate and understand needs for a diverse set of circumstances.

You can develop surveys for different types of patient interactions so you can improve on all phases of care. For example, you could ask about the experience of doing routine tasks like scheduling or moving an appointment.

Another area to explore is patient interactions with healthcare staff. Did the patient feel their concerns were addressed? Could something have been explained better? How comfortable were they interacting with different staff members?

You can also do in-depth patient interviews. Though they are a bit more resource-intensive and are a smaller sample size than a general survey, they give more insight, which could lead to better direction when developing surveys later on.

The best way to improve an experience is to understand how it’s currently going. By soliciting feedback, you gain the insights necessary to provide quality care and serve patients better.

5. Encourage team self-care

As mentioned throughout this article, the stakes can be pretty high working in healthcare. Whether you’re reviewing claims, trying to assist directly with a health issue, or simply aiding in someone’s recovery, it can take a big emotional toll.

Having time and space to process their experiences and emotions is necessary for your staff to continue providing a high level of service, and it’s important to encourage team members to practice self-care.

You could do weekly check-ins to see how people are feeling. If someone voices they’re struggling, take additional time to chat with them and help them process. If there’s no one on staff qualified to provide that support, make sure they have access to an outside resource.

Also consider having special time off that falls outside the standard vacation and sick time for those who are particularly fatigued. Our emotional and physical health are closely linked, so if one is neglected, there’s a high possibility the other will suffer, too.

Ultimately, it comes down to being thoughtful and creating an environment of trust by building a strong rapport amongst your team. If they’re not healthy, they can’t do their best work. As Paul Wellstone once said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Long-term health

Working any support job is difficult, but an industry like healthcare presents unique challenges that require special consideration. Though it may feel like a tall order, it’s what’s needed to have the best outcomes for employees and patients alike.

Be sure you’re taking the time to fully address the needs of everyone involved. When you do, you help create a healthier environment where all can succeed.

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