The First Three Seconds

By Richard D. Stier

Improving the patient experience at the first point of contact has always been the right thing to do. It is now a financial opportunity. “The first three seconds must be intentionally effective. That initial interaction is a strong driver of patient preference,” said Colleen Sweeney at the 2012 SHSMD annual conference.

The Accountable Care Act requires that beginning October 1, 2012, hospitals are incentivized to either recover or lose 1-2% of Medicare dollars based on HCAHPS (hospital consumer assessment of health providers and systems) scores. The financial impact of ignoring a focus on the patient experience can be costly. According to HealthLeaders, the annual potential loss for a two-hospital, 950-bed system is about $2 million.

With HCAHPS, hospitals must achieve consistency in behaviors, processes, and handoffs across the continuum of care. As J.D. Power and Associates notes, “Hospitals may attempt to attract patients and staff by adding equipment or sprucing up their facilities. From the perspective of patients, it might be more worthwhile to invest in finding and keeping staff with superior interpersonal skills.”

The healthcare contact center is frequently a patient’s first interpersonal experience with a hospital or health system. The first three seconds of that interaction are critically important because that initial moment of connection is a strong indicator of patient preference for a particular provider. “‘The first and last impressions are very important for a patient, much like they are for hotel guests,” added Sweeney.

Leading healthcare providers understand the important role of the contact center to improve care experiences at the first point of contact. One health network estimates HCAHPS reimbursement recovery at $1.3 million for the current fiscal year.

How to improve experiences at the first point of contact: Those who call your organization’s contact center should not wonder about how they will be received and treated. Here are ten steps to elevate initial contact center connections from routine transactions to memorable transformations.

1) Collaborate: Work with your call center team to identify key phrases to be used during the first three seconds.

2) Make a promise: Commit to the caller/patient you will deliver the same experience every time, holding each other to the phrases that are agreed to be ideal.

3) Role play: Script the ideal first three seconds of your interaction using the phrases developed in item one.

4) Make your employees stars: Videotape your team members demonstrating the first three seconds of the ideal patient experience. Every employee and new hire is required to view the video and participate in a role-play practice of the ideal initial interaction. Make it fun! Give prizes for the best performances as determined by your team.

5) Put a mirror at each workstation: Answer each call with a smile. Your smile is communicated in your voice.

6) Introduce yourself: While you are smiling, share your name and title.

7) Connect emotionally: Make a mental note of the caller’s tone of voice. This will create an emotional connection with the caller.

8) Communicate empathy: Listen with sensitivity for what is confusing and frightening to the caller/patient. Explain everything with patience and kindness. Even the simplest physician appointments, tests, or procedures can be easily misunderstood by patients who are anxious or do not feel well.

Empathy makes a clinical difference. According to Academic Medicine, “Patients of physicians with high empathy scores, compared with patients of physicians with moderate and low empathy scores, had a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.”

9) Make your contact center a one-stop solution: Don’t transfer calls. If necessary, find the answers and call your patient back.

10) Ask the key question: “Is there anything else I can do now to support your positive healthcare experience?”

Improving the patient experience during the first moments of contact is a timely financial opportunity. Your call center can make those moments memorable.

Richard D. Stier, MBA, is vice president of marketing for HealthLine Systems, Inc., provider of contact center and credentialing software solutions and consulting, serving over 1,000 leading healthcare organizations across North America.

[From the February/March 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]