Managing the Customer Care Experience in Hospital Care


Larry Wellikson, MD, SFHM

I needed an oil change, so I took my car to Jiffy Lube. I had just pulled into the entrance to one of the service bays when a smiling man whose nametag read “Tony” approached me. “Welcome back, Mr. Wellikson. What can we help you with today?” Well, that was nice and so unexpected, as I had not remembered ever going to that Jiffy Lube. As it turns out, they have a video camera that shows incoming cars in their control room. They can read my license plate and call up my car on their computer system, access my record, and create a personal greeting. They also used my car’s past history as a starting point for this encounter. We were off to a good start.

Once I indicated I just wanted a routine oil change, Tony indicated he would be back in five to 10 minutes. He told me I should wait in the waiting room where they had wireless Internet, TV, magazines, and comfortable chairs.

In less than 10 minutes, Tony was back, clipboard in hand, with an assessment of my car’s status, including previous work and manufacturer’s recommendations, based on my car’s age and mileage. Once we negotiated not replacing all of the fluids and filters, Tony smiled and said the work should be completed in 10 minutes.

Soon, Tony came back to lead me out to my car, which had been wheeled out to the front of the garage bay with an open driver’s door waiting for me. After helping me into my seat, Tony came around and sat in the passenger seat and, once again with his ready clipboard, walked me through the 29 steps of inspections and fluid changes that had been made on my visit, reviewed the frequency of future needs for my vehicle, put a sticker on my inside windshield as a reminder, included $5 off for my next service, then patiently asked me if I had any questions.

Total time at Jiffy Lube: less than 30 minutes. Total cost: $29.99. Total customer experience: exceptional. Considering it was the third Jiffy Lube location I had used in the past three years, I can tell you the experience and system is the same throughout the company, whether the uniform name is Tony or Jose or Gladys.

Can such experiences offer hospitalists lessons about how we manage the customer experience in hospital care?

Total time at Jiffy Lube: less than 30 minutes. Total cost: $29.99. Total customer experience: exceptional.

Scalable Innovation

In August 2012, Atul Gawande, MD, wrote a thought-provoking article in The New Yorker in which he coupled his detailed observation of how the restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory manages to deliver 8 million meals annually nationwide with high quality at a reasonable cost and strong corporate profits with the emerging trend of healthcare delivery innovations being sought by large hospital chains and such innovations as ICU telemedicine.1

He noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 25% of physicians are currently self-employed, and the growing trend is hospitals being acquired or merged into larger and larger hospital chains. He observed that recent and future financial changes are moving toward payment for results and efficiencies and further away from just rewarding transactions and supplying services, whether of measureable value or with proven results. Cheesecake Factory has built its success on large-scale production-line processes that produce consistent results across hundreds of locations and millions of meals. It may now be time for healthcare, especially hospital care, to come into the 21st century, too.

How did Cheesecake Factory get to where they are? They studied what the best people were doing, figured out a way to standardize it, then looked for ways to bring it to everyone. Although we could look at research as medicine’s way of bringing new concepts forward, where we have fallen down as an industry and culture is our ability to deliver on this at the bedside. Why aren’t most myocardial infarction patients on beta-blockers? Why isn’t DVT prophylaxis universal? Why can’t we all wash our hands on a regular basis?

Medical care, especially the physician portion, has always placed an overwhelming bias on autonomy. We all know that even at the same hospital or within the same physician group of cardiologists or orthopedists (or even hospitalists) that there can be multiple ways to treat chest pain, replace a joint, or manage pneumonia. Dr. Gawande postulates that “customization should be 5%, not 95%, of what we do.” He is not suggesting cookbook medicine—rather, that we bring all of the current proven and consensus medical knowledge together and allow local professionals to agree to narrow their choices down to a consistent and reproducible process for managing care.

Hoag, a health network near my home in Orange County, Calif., has brought this approach to orthopedic care. Hoag purchased a smaller hospital near its main campus and is emphasizing state-of-the-art orthopedic care at the new facility. They aligned the incentives—clinically and financially—with a large but select group of orthopedists, and they have chosen just a few prosthetic choices for hip and knee replacements. They have narrowed their protocols for pre- and post-op care, and now do same-day joint replacements with lower complication rates and better return-to-activity results at lower costs. And trust me, the orthopedists at Hoag were as independent as any physicians you might run into. The demands of the new payor models and competition to provide consumers (i.e. patients) with a 21st-century experience pushed, pulled, and prodded these orthopedists, and an enlightened hospital leadership, to rise to the challenges.

HM Takeaway

So where do hospitalists fit into this emerging world of customer service, standardization, accountability for results, and payment change? As you might imagine, we are right in the middle of all of this. High-functioning HM groups have understood that we must help shape a better system for us to work in. We cannot perpetuate the old paradigm in which the hospital was simply a swap meet where each physician had a booth and performed a procedure with little regard to how efficient or effective the entire enterprise might be.

Hospitalists have always performed in a group setting and worked across the professional disciplines of medicine, surgery, and subspecialties, and with nurses, pharmacists, and therapists. In the best of breed, hospitalists are enculturated to think systemwide yet deliver to an individual patient.

As hospital chains look to standardize and deliver the best results and the most efficient use of resources, hospitalists can be positioned in a variety of ways. You can be an innovative partner, working with other professionals and the administration to seek new ways of doing things. You can be the manager or coordinator of other professionals and the rest of the team. But you also could evolve to be line workers and cogs in a larger machine, replaceable and commoditized. In the end, hospitalists will not only need to create value, but also position themselves to be professionally rewarded and respected for the value they create.

Dr. Gawande considers the perspectives of healthcare providers and patients as he looks to the future. “Patients won’t just look for the best specialist anymore; they’ll look for the best system,” he says. “Nurses and doctors will have to get used to delivering care in which our own convenience counts for less and the patients’ experience counts for more.”

The changes ahead will be rapid and disruptive; some hospitals will be driven out of business, while some will be consolidated. Physicians will aggregate and become employees (although many will still think they are free agents). Standardization will be pushed, and customization and one-offs will be tolerated less and less.

In this new world, hospitalists have the opportunity to be at the leading edge, not just for other physicians but the entire healthcare team. We need to prepare for this challenge, not just with clinical skills, but with a culture and a mindset to adapt and evolve. We need to decide if we will be cogs in a machine or the innovators and managers of change. The time is now; the choice is ours.

Dr. Wellikson is CEO of SHM.


  1. Gawande A. The New Yorker. “Big Med.” The New Yorker website. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/13/120813fa_fact_gawande. Accessed Aug. 20, 2012.

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