The Downside of Patient Experience

The Enchanted Forest was my first employer. My job was to direct cars to available parking, affix bumper stickers to those cars, and pick up the discarded Pampers—I lasted less than a day.

I mention that because today I had the pleasure of laboring through security at Philadelphia International Airport. Cattle awaiting slaughter in Chicago’s stockyards have a better experience.  Given the choice of being a TSA agent or picking up Pampers at the Enchanted Forest I’ll take the Pampers.  Lest we forget, all Americans should be forced to go through airport security once a year just to remember what those clowns did to us on 9-11.

I am flying USAIR; not by choice.  One of my fellow alums, our school’s poster child for success, is the CEO of USAIR.  I bet he flies Southwest, or maybe he does the John Madden thing and rides in his own bus whenever he has to travel.

Remember the old airline slogans, “We love to fly and it shows,” and “Fly the friendly skies of United,” and Delta’s “We’re ready to fly when you are”?  Today the universal slogan of the airline industry is, “We don’t like flying any more than you do, but hey, it’s a job.  We are no worse than the other airline.”  There is no pretense about competing on customer experience.  Far from it.

Airlines no longer even pretend to compete on price. It is almost as though they compete with one another to see which airline can come up with the most irritating surcharges.  Should we be forced to make an emergency water landing—as though there is anything other than an emergency water landing—your seat cushions may be used as flotation devices.  There is a five dollar non-refundable charge for those who may wish to use their seat cushions to save themselves and their loved ones.  A flight attendant will be passing through the aisle to collect payment and unlock your cushion.

To board the plane I had to pass between two closely aligned, six-foot, vertical, buttered rollers that were designed to lubricate both sides of each passenger to enable passengers to squeeze into the aircraft’s Barbie Doll seats.  As I am seated in an exit row I decide to take advantage of an on-the-spot micro-business opportunity.  I stand and announce to my fellow passengers, “Should we be forced to make any type of emergency landing you may wish to exit the plane.  There is a five dollar non-refundable charge for those who may wish to exit through my window exit.  I will be passing through the aisle shortly to collect payment.

The marketing campaign for the airline industry seems as though it was pulled almost word for word from the Les Misérables song, Master of the House.  “It doesn’t cost me to be nice, nothing gets you nothing, everything has got a little price. Master of the house, keeper of the zoo, ready to relieve them of a sous or two…charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for looking in the mirror twice.”  Essentially their customer retention plan is we can do whatever we want to you…if you don’t like it you can always walk.  “Two percent for looking in the mirror twice.”

Customer experience.  Patient experience.  Driving to the airport this morning NPR ran an advertisement from a Philadelphia hospital that was touting its hip and knee replacement offering.  You may not know this, but hospitals have a department that specializes in business development—I kid you not.  Highly trained individuals, MBAs—most likely all of the airline CEO positions were taken, toil day after day trying to figure out the answer to the question that has plagued mankind since the invention of the Band-Aid, ‘How do we get sick people to come to us’?  Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…healthcare’s business development strategy could be dubbed the Statue of Liberty strategy. 

Sometimes the business development people get together with the marketing people—it is like a Mensa meeting minus the mense—no need to look it up; I was just going for the alliteration.  I think this is how the billboard strategy of attracting patients came into being.  You know the one about which I am writing.  A mile or so from every hospital is a mammoth billboard depicting a photo of the hospital’s urologists—substitute your favorite specialty—all of whom are smiling.  I think the idea behind the billboard is to entice you to use their services should you happen to be passing a kidney stone as you are driving by.  (I read that in California the photo of the urologists has been replaced with a photo of the nip-&-tuck squad.)

What many hospitals seem to have failed to notice, or to have made operational, is that prospective patients choose their providers.  This has been going on for well more than a decade.  I know this because when I had my heart attack the ambulance driver determined where I was to be treated, a hospital fifteen minutes from my house.  For the last ten years I have chosen to travel more than an hour each way to the cardiologist I selected.  The original hospital, which has lost tens of thousands of dollars by not retaining me, does not even know if I am alive.  They never called to find out.  By the way, they have a lot of billboards.

Patient choice is undermining a lot of hospitals’ revenues.  As much as the healthcare industry would like us to believe that people choose their provider only based on specializations and mortality rates, other factors come into play.  One of those other factors, perhaps the biggest factor, is patient experience and their satisfaction with that experience.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America seem to have figured that out.  Their advertisements appeal to our base Freudianish needs, that the individual is special and wants to be treated as such.  CTCA does not advertise that you will not die if they treat you.  Their advertisements and their testimonials focus on the fact that their patients are treated like family. 

Essentially CTCA  have figured out that it is good business to approach cancer patients as smart customers.  CTCA cannot campaign on the fact that their patients don’t die.  Unfortunately cancer patients die, so that dog don’t hunt.  They cannot campaign on the fact that their treatment doesn’t make you nauseous, but as I also know from personal experience, chemo is awful, so that dog don’t hunt either.  So CTCA claimed the unclaimed ground, the ground over which none of their competitors are fighting; patient experience.

The CTCA’s phone lines are open 24 x 7, or you can reach them through a chat line to let them convince you about their integrated, specialized plan to treat you.  (They do not however have an iPad app which means they just lost points in the patient experience bonus round.)

Their patients travel across states at great personal expense.  Their patients are willing to pay more for even the possibility of a better experience.

I’ll close with this.  Almost every hospital has at least one MRI.  Each MRI probably delivers the same high quality images.  Each hospital probably has equally competent radiologists to read the images.  What then is your hospital’s competitive advantage?  Perhaps it is time to be able to answer that question.  The downside of competing on patient experience is that to do so you had better be pretty good at it.

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