Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care, LLC and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine
Urgent message: Consumers drawn by the convenience, affordability, and service provided by urgent care centers continue to fuel industry-wide growth. Successful urgent care practices embrace a patient-centered delivery model that appropriately delegates tasks, focuses on respectful communication, and continually develops providers and staff.
Profitability in urgent care is driven by throughput—seeing more patients more quickly not only results in greater patient satisfaction, positive word of mouth, and repeat visits from loyal “fans,” but also maximizes the efficiency of labor, which is the largest operating expense in urgent care. So, it stands to reason that creating a patient-centered operating model complete with systems, processes, policies, and a culture focused on seeing patients quickly is the objective of all urgent care operators. Patient-centeredness is much more than a trendy buzzword in today’s healthcare dialogue, however; it’s an overarching philosophy that drives the industry as a whole in bold new directions.
Patient-centeredness has been defined in the Institute of Medicine as “encompassing qualities of compassion, empathy, and responsiveness to the needs, values, and expressed preferences of the individual patient” and “ensuring patient values guide all clinical decisions.” Lofty aspirations indeed, and in fact the realities of today’s medical practice environment can often make being patient-centered in everything you do a struggle. This is especially true in urgent care, where patient throughput is closely tied to profitability, and striking the proper balance between spending quality time with and actively listening to the patient while also getting them out of the center quickly with a great outcome can be a tricky proposition.
To that end, here are three key values your practice should embrace to become more patient-centered, and demonstrate to your patients that you fully understand their wants and needs:
- First, offload provider tasks to support staff when appropriate. There are many clinical tasks that can be handled well by nonphysician members of the care team—in many cases, even better than by the physicians themselves. When standing orders, protocols, training, and oversight are in place, support clinicians can assume these tasks, leaving the physician more one-on-one time with patients to listen to and address their concerns, and provide more complex care. Additionally, studies show that patients don’t mind this offloading of tasks, as they often feel they get more attentive care from the staff members delivering services. As long as there is communication and collaboration within the team, this approach can not only flourish, but increase the level of care the patient perceives they are receiving.
- Second, communicate respectfully during all phases of a patient’s visit. For example, when a patient enters your center, are they greeted with eye contact and a warm “Hello, how can we help you today?” or by a front-desk person who barely glares up from their monitor and says, “Sign in and take a clipboard”? A good way to think of your urgent care patients is to imagine that you’re the concierge at a five-star hotel, and they are the patrons. That principle should be the guiding ethos in your and your staff’s communications with patients at every stage of the interaction. There can never be enough “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” and “I apologize” during check in, registration, waiting, rooming, treatment, and check-out. Also, by adopting an apologetic tone during miscommunications and explanations, patients will feel humanized and respected, which has been shown to make a tremendous impression on their perceived level of care. Ultimately, it’s up to the providers to model the desired behavior for the care team to follow—with most eager to get on board, since healthcare workers in general have a strong desire to help others.
- Third, develop coaching skills among providers and managers. Bob Nardelli, who has served as CEO of Home Depot and Chrysler, once said “I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, will never reach their maximum capabilities.” Coaching is releasing a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them. Conveying empathy, active listening, and providing feedback are not only foundational pieces of a patient-centered approach, they’re learnable, teachable, and measurable skills. Although it’s rare for staff to receive feedback on their behavior, it can be done effectively and, in a way, where it doesn’t feel like “criticism.” It simply requires providers and managers learning the skills themselves, then modeling the behaviors while coaching staff how to do it.
In reality, a comprehensive patient-centered approach will touch on infrastructure and process as well as desired behaviors. Still, it’s of paramount importance that leaders not only display, but insist that their staff display empathy and respect to each other and patients during every single interaction. Doing so sends a powerful message that your organization respects patients (and staff) like honored guests, which of course will reap incredible dividends for your center in the near and long-term.