We are living in an increasingly consumer-driven health care environment. Online doctor ratings are on the rise, and more importance is being placed on patient satisfaction surveys. Data shows that younger generations shop for doctors the way they shop for electronics and hairdressers — through Google searches, review sites, and recommendations from their Facebook friends. And yet, any doctor knows that providing medical care is not the same as selling smartphones. What’s a modern health care provider to do?

Service does matter

While an ophthalmologist provides a very different service than a manicurist, for instance, medicine is still a service industry. An appealing waiting room, being respectful of patients’ time — things like this matter, given that patients can shop around for a practice that uses iPads and online appointment scheduling, if technology is important to them and you don’t have it.

However, the doctor-patient relationship will never be a true business partnership, in which the mantra is “the customer knows best.” Patients are often stressed, scared, or in pain, and getting proper medical care can be a life-or-death experience. On top of that, patients are not medical experts, even when they’ve looked up and read about their symptoms online. And they may request things that are medically inappropriate, points out former Denver Health CEO Dr. Patricia Gabow in Modern Healthcare.

It’s the doctor’s job to steer patients away from unnecessary expensive or invasive tests and medications that could harm them, writes Daily Beast contributor Dr. Russell Saunders, a pseudonym for a pediatrician in New England. You can’t prescribe every drug a patient asks for, or order every test — even if it means making them unhappy and risking a poor online review.

Learning from other industries

There are still plenty of things doctors can learn from customer-focused industries that will help them offer a better patient experience. Simple actions like making eye contact, listening without interrupting, and being mindful of how you use technology in the exam room can go a long way towards increasing patient satisfaction.

Some hospitals look to the hotel industry for insights on how to improve the patient experience. This can include everything from hiring people with positive attitudes to having staffers wear standardized uniforms.

A recent Forbes article on improving patient experience and patient satisfaction survey scores pointed out that the “halo effect” exists even in health care. That is, if a customer or patient has a generally positive impression and experience of your business or practice overall, they are more likely to overlook areas where you may not be quite up to par. In other words, eye contact and a smile can make up for outdated waiting room décor.

Offer choices

The days of patients blindly taking their doctors’ word or doing something just because their doctor said so are over. Patients are more likely to consult Dr. Google and arrive at their consultation having done their own medical research. But doctors can acknowledge patients’ desire to be more involved in their care while still steering them towards the best medical decisions by taking a page from the salesperson’s playbook and offering patients choices.

Patients are used to — and expect — to “shop around” for the best option, whether they’re considering a new TV or laser eye surgery. They want to be educated and make an informed decision. You can meet this need for health care consumers by offering them multiple options for treatment whenever possible. Current software makes this easy. With the click of a button, you can show patients simple, high-quality videos that clearly explain their condition and various treatment options. They can even access these videos at home to discuss their choices with family and friends.

Whether we call them patients, customers, or health care consumers ultimately may not matter. The important thing is for doctors to provide quality care for each person who comes into their practice.

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