We Need More Customer Service In Medicine

Customer service in medicine is important. I know many people don’t want to hear that, but it’s not going away. Patients are talking to each other more than ever. They’re leaving comments on Facebook, Twitter, and numerous physician review websites. Get a few bad reviews, and watch your patient volume drop. Your revenue won’t be far behind.

However, I believe the current focus on customer service is actually too narrow. Yep, that’s right. I think medicine needs more customer service, not less.

While much of the physician lounge discussion and staff meeting arguments stem from external customer service, medicine actually needs a larger focus on internal customer service.

The business world is already well versed in both internal and external customer service. Talk with any businessperson and you will hear them talk about their internal and external customers. It’s considered standard practice to extend the same level of customer service to your internal customers as your external customers.

The reason for this is simple. To best achieve your organization’s mission, everyone in your organization has to work together. Team work makes the dream work as we like to say.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed a lot of colleague interactions that were downright scary. Many times, they look something like this:

(video courtesy of Youtube and ZdoggMD.com)

While that video might be hilarious (this one is even better), these types of negative interactions not only throw a wet blanket on a everyone’s day, but they hamper patient care.

In my mind, there are three reasons that medicine, and physicians in particular, should focus on improving our collective internal customer service skills. Allow me to explain.

The Patient Is Still Sick


I use this phrase all the time when embroiled in some type of specialty turf war or argument. While we’re sitting here arguing about “whose problem” this should be, the patient is still sick. Think about the poor patient in the middle of this confrontation:

(video courtesy of Youtube)

I don’t know what the mission of each of your organizations is, but I’m willing to bet that taking care of patients is an integral part of it. As a profession that generally prides itself on caring for others, arguing and negative interactions takes the focus off the patient and onto ourselves. We should view this as countercultural and unacceptable.

I fully recognize that legitimate conflicts arise that need to be solved. However, my rule in my personal practice and those whom I supervise is to take care of the patient first, period. We will deal with the system issue, but step one is always to care for the patient in front of you.

By flexing our internal customer service skills, we can make these occurrences few and far between. I was involved in a great conversation on Twitter discussing the role of radiology and pathology in patient care, and specifically how both specialties desire to be more directly involved in the care of the patient. Here is one quote I think is poignant:

“Cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten “I’m just covering” when calling back to ask more questions about a study.”

Good internal customer service recognizes that these types of conversations cannot happen and our relationships with our colleagues are essential to achieving our overall mission of caring for the patient. “I’m just covering” turns into “how can I help our patient today,” and the patients benefit at the end of the day.

Conflict Increases Your Workload


Can you afford to add more tasks to your day? Do you really want that routine case to take double the amount of time it should? No, right? Your day is already slammed.

Negative interactions with your colleagues not only hamper patient care, but they waste your time. First, there is the obvious. If you’re like me and you have an argument with a colleague, then its going to take you a few minutes to cool down. Are you going to do much productive during that time? Nope. Time wasted.

Second, are you going to work with that colleague in the near future if you need to? You might hesitate if you have a poor interaction with a radiologist and then need a quick chest x-ray interpretation. Might just wait for the report, right?

My previously mentioned Twitter conversation had someone that probably has lived out this reality. Check out this quote:

“Surgeons at my old institution referred to radiologists as “possums”. They lived in the dark and would bite if approached/provoked.”

Pretty sure you’re just going to wait for the report if you think the radiologists you work with are “possums.” Waiting for that report is probably going to cost you some time in the care of that patient. Instead of having the information you need and moving on, you’re going waste time because no one is practicing good internal customer service.


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Frustration Leads To Mistakes


Now its time for the rubber to meet the road. It’s one thing to have your schedule inconvenienced or to feel upset. It’s quite another to put patient safety at risk. Unfortunately, practicing poor internal customer service does just that.

Remember that example I just gave, where a physician and radiologist don’t want to talk because of a poor interaction? That lack of communication endangers patient safety. The patient safety literature already supports the idea that lack of communication amongst teams leads to medical errors.

As a community, are we OK with that? As a patient yourself, do you want your medical team to avoid communicating with each other? No! You want your medical team working together to provide care for you because you know that anything less is going to result in substandard care. If your medical team doesn’t communicate, then your care might look like this:

(video courtesy of Youtube)

So the next time you are frustrated at that specialist who is giving you a hard time about a consult or you’re nervous that the pathologist is going to bite your head off on the phone, remember we need more customer service in medicine, not less. Even Mr. Bean can figure it out.

Hopefully, I have convinced you that customer service inside of healthcare is actually the most important form of customer service. At the very least, I hope you got a few laughs watching the videos.

Just like we have resolved to provide excellent service to our external customers, patients, in our efforts to provide the best care possible, we must equally resolve to provide excellent service to our internal customers, our colleagues, so we can all provide excellent care to our patients. As professionals, we should demand no less from ourselves.

What do you think? Is customer service a bad word or do you agree we need more? Have you ever been assaulted by a colleague dressed as Darth Vader? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.