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Why does the typical private hospital, clinic or consultant forget its customers? In a market where demand is fairly static and competition is increasing, you might imagine that the private healthcare sector is working really hard to retain customers and use its existing customer base to protect and build its business.

But sadly that isn't the case. In the healthcare business, too many are still treating people as patients, and forgetting to look after them as customers. We need a change of approach.

The patient as a customer

Let me share my recent experiences of the private healthcare sector. I've reached a certain age when the sporting endeavours of my youth and the advancing of the years have meant that  I have needed to call on the services of the private healthcare sector. That's meant that on three occasions, I have become a private patient, once on a self pay basis and twice under our company health insurance.

As a patient, I have no complaints about the quality of care and the outcome of the treatment has been. It was interesting to see how the make up of the staffing of private hospitals has changed since I worked for one of the major groups many years back.

At a time when the country is going to make a major decision about its role within the EU, I wonder how this is going to impact on private hospitals that are becoming increasingly reliant on non-UK staff to deliver a service. In one of my recent "private patient journeys" involving daycase surgery in a London private hospital, I encountered just the one member of staff who was a "true Brit" - the lady who served my cup of tea. The rest came from all over Europe, and further afield. 

As a marketer, what has been interesting is how the hospital has viewed me as a customer. After all, I paid for the treatment out of my own pocket or through my health insurance. And I made the decisions about which private consultant and which private hospital I would go to.  After each of my private patient experiences, I was a satisfied customer. So, what did the consultant  or hospital do to make the most of my satisfaction? Well... nothing.

Past customers are future customers

I'm sure that all private hospitals have a process in place to deal with unhappy customers and patient complaints, but I don't see much evidence of them maximising the potential spin-off from a satisfied customer. Once you have been discharged from a private hospital, that's it. I doubt that you will hear from your consultant or hospital again, unless you haven't paid your bill.

Past customers can become future customers. Past customers can bring new customers. Most customer focused businesses realise this. Here's a few examples from other industries, and how they might work in the private healthcare sector.

Have you called a customer today?

This is an idea promoted by Tom Peters in his book, " The Little Big Things".   He encourages businesses to get their staff to call their customers to find out... "how was it?", "how could we have done better?", "did we deliver on our promise?". The staff member keeps notes, shares the feedback with their team, fixes any problem (however small), and calls back the customer within 48 hours to provide an update. Not surprisingly,  the customer feels great that they have been asked.

Ask for feedback, and don't ignore it

Most hospitals run patient satisfaction surveys of some kind. Most consultants don't. Why not? It's easy to do nowadays. On Private Healthcare UK, Consultants can encourage past patients to write "Consultant Recommendations", and include a widget on their own site, displaying those recommendations. Here is a consultant who makes good use of this tool. Here is another. But consultants who actively seek feedback on their private practice are a rare breed.  It doesn't take much. Just a hyperlink to submit a recommendation on Private Healthcare UK  in their patient follow up email. 

Create customer advocates

We know that satisfied customers tell other people about their positive experience. They are more likely to do that if you keep talking to them, even when they are gone. If we buy something nowadays, the supplier keeps in touch. Last week, I got emails from the companies where I bought contact lenses, a golf holiday, a suit, and a car. Each one understands the importance of keeping in touch with past customers.

As a past customer,  I've never received anything from the private healthcare sector. Will I go private again? There's a good chance that I will. And I probably know quite a few people who will do the same. So, nurture my satisfaction, maintain a relationship with me and there's a better chance that your hospital or private practice will see the benefit.

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About the author

Keith Pollard is CEO of Intuition Communication, an online publisher in the healthcare sector that operates market-leading web portals such as Private Healthcare UK, the Harley Street Guide, HarleyStreet.com and Surgery Door. Intuition is also active in the online medical travel sector through Treatment Abroad, International Medical Travel Journal and DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal. View www.keithpollard.com for my full profile.

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