One of my many faults is a total lack of patience. I am not patient in part because I am compulsive about being punctual.
All this is relevant because I have recently had a lot of quiet time, sitting in several hospitals while being treated for a newly discovered malignant tumor found to have invaded my bladder. The urologist who announced the invasion to me also proclaimed -- “It is no big deal.” Yeah, but to me the first time I am told I have cancer is a very big deal.
Being in the medical universe teaches preternatural patience. Sitting in my wheelchair waiting for hours to be seen or treated, I began to wonder at the irony of being called a “Patient.” I suggest hospitals should begin to use the proper term -- “Customer.”
In my experience, the often surly and cranky employees of hospitals behave as if I, a poor “patient,” have had the temerity to intrude on their territory by simply showing up. They ignore the reality: It is we who are paying their salaries. I wonder whether any hospital administrator has ever tried to explain that the poor sick and benighted souls walking hospital halls should in reality be viewed as cherished customers.
On one of my recent hospital visits I needed to use the bathroom while in the emergency room. The young hospital “tech” or orderly who was assigned to push my wheelchair to the facility took me to the nearest bathroom only to discover, when he got me outside the door, my chair would not fit through the door.
Sitting there somewhat stunned and wondering what to do next, I heard my orderly announce he was sorry but he had to leave me to help another “patient.”
My wife was with me, and took charge when I was abandoned. Fortunately, a doctor came by, saw immediately my situation and guided me to the nearest wheelchair-accessible bathroom in another section of the facility well outside and distant from the emergency area. The young orderly never returned to help me. The head of the hospital has since apologized.
In my next hospital in New York City, I got ensnared by the pre-op department and was told to wait for someone to find time to draw blood. Having spent most of five hours by then in my chair waiting in other departments, my tolerance for more sitting was gone and so I wheeled my chair toward a cohort of women who were sitting behind the counter laughing and having a fine old time and explained my sorry state. I told them I had been there for many hours, was hurting badly, and could not sit much longer.
One of them seemed annoyed at my impertinence and curtly told me a nurse would be along to help me. But she also seemed moved a bit by my problem and soon told me to follow her.
She was the blood drawer and my waiting ended shortly thereafter. But throughout the process, she was visibly peeved at me and offered monosyllabic replies when I commended her skills with her needles. I kept thinking how much nicer it would have been if she had told me she understood what I was going through. I was hardly expecting her to be human.
Here is my advice to all hospital administrators: Think Disney and think Coca-Cola. Those giant customer-oriented companies understand the crucial value of customers.
Imagine a hospital that has retained Disney to train its staff in fundamental customer service.
Imagine hospital workers who smile and tell you how pleased they are you chose to come to their hospital.
It is beyond hope that any physician would ever think to acknowledge a customer relationship with “patients.” Yet imagine the feeling in your soul if you ever were to approach the desk in a hospital waiting room to find a smiling face greeting you with a bright look and the words, “Good Morning. I am so pleased you decided to come here for your medical problems. I am here to help you.”
The Disney experts could teach almost every other business the best ways to build customer satisfaction and loyalty. Just changing the name of those of us who hate to use hospitals from “patients” --and we are not -- to “customers” or even “clients” might be the start of something big. But I know it will not.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.