The days of relying on patient volume to generate a profit are over. As patients take a more consumer-oriented approach to health care, attracting and retaining them is increasingly important — and challenging. With more provider and procedure choices available than ever, doctors need to engage patients not only during their appointments, but on a continual basis in order to keep them coming back.

Keeping patients engaged and loyal to a practice is vitally important to its long-term financial success, writes Steve Whitehurst in Healthcare IT News. “The significance of patient communication in reaching this goal cannot be overstated, and extends far beyond the fact that it costs 90 percent less to get current patients to return for future care than it does to attract new patients.”

So how can you increase patient engagement and loyalty, and encourage repeat business in your practice? Here are some tips.

Focus on communication

Because today’s patients are tech-savvy and hyper-connected, they have high expectations for relevant and timely responses from doctors and medical practices. Patients who are active users of technology and social media expect their health care providers to be, too. A recent survey found that 41 percent of people said social media would affect their choice of a specific doctor, hospital, or medical facility.

And patients want their doctors to communicate with them on their terms — whether that means via email, text, or a patient portal. Another study found that 80 percent of adult smartphone users around the world are interested in using their smartphones to interact with health care providers.

This survey, by analytics software and services company FICO, revealed that the majority of respondents are already using their smartphones for health care-related purposes: 80 percent receive reminders of upcoming appointments, and 60 percent receive reminders to arrange appointments and health checks. In addition, 71 percent of respondents are “open to offers of relevant health care services from businesses,” and 53 percent are open to provider-initiated communications. Doctors: the ball is in your court.

Of course, good doctor-patient communication also includes face-to-face interactions. At minimum, patients want eye contact and the chance to speak without being interrupted — one study found that on average, patients were interrupted after only 12 seconds of speaking. Better listening goes a long way toward improving patient satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately, loyalty.

Let technology help

Beyond social media and smartphones, doctors’ use of other technology can help foster patient engagement and loyalty. “Patient portals can generate an increase in patient loyalty because practices are providing more context and information beyond what is said during the appointment,” writes Divan Dave in Physician’s Practice. “When the portal demonstrates an ‘above and beyond’ attitude by your practice, patients will respond favorably.”

This holds true for your patient education, too. High-quality visual materials send a message to patients that they are worth more than a photocopied handout. Many doctors now use cloud-based educational software that is interactive and can be shared with the patient on a tablet during the appointment. And if the patient can access the materials from home — say, via email or online — and share them with family and caregivers, even better.

Gather feedback

You won’t really know if you’re giving patients what they want unless you ask them, however. Patient satisfaction surveys, online doctor ratings, and “mystery shoppers” are all ways to gather feedback about your practice.

Standardized patient satisfaction surveys such as CG-CAHPS (Clinician and Group Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) are increasingly being used by various organizations, including Medicare, to assess patients’ experience with their doctor visits. Certain questions are strong indicators of loyalty, such as whether a patient is willing to recommend your practice to others.

You could also form a patient advisory council made up of patients and family members to help target and improve your communications and patient services, with the goal of increasing patient loyalty. If you go this route, try to include a diverse group of patients of different ages, as well as caregivers.

It’s well worth your time to understand and encourage patient loyalty. Loyal patients will stay with you in sickness and in health, even if you don’t take their insurance, reports Dr. Pamela Wible in her post, “7 secrets to keep patients loyal for life.”

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