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Becoming a Health Center of Choice: Customer Service for Patient Engagement and Retention

Monday, April 11, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Caitlin Ruppel


Sonia Lee


Becoming a Health Center of Choice: Customer Service for Patient Engagement and Retention


By Caitlin Ruppel, Associate Project Manager, and Sonia Lee, Project Manager, Health Outreach Partners


Editor's Note: Sonia Lee, Project Manager at Health Outreach Partners, will be presenting a three-hour workshop on the HOP customer service curriculum on Saturday, May 14 from 8:30-11:30am PDT at the 2016 NWRPCA Annual Spring Conference in Anchorage.


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou


As millions of Americans gain access to comprehensive health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they are increasingly turning to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) as their preferred provider of care. One in fourteen people in the U.S. now identifies an FQHC as their primary source of preventive health care.  Health centers are adopting patient-centered and coordinated approaches to balance meeting the complex needs of a growing patient population while ensuring the delivery of quality care. One such approach is through the provision of excellent customer service, which helps health centers to remain a provider of choice for current patients and also become one for community members newly accessing care at their site.


Customer service in the healthcare setting is grounded in the patient experience. It is an approach that inspires trust and leads to the development of meaningful relationships among all who are involved in providing care. Health centers are at the forefront of addressing the challenges that underserved populations experience when accessing health services. Understanding and providing excellent customer service is an essential component of culturally competent, responsive, quality care. Maintaining consistency in how patients are welcomed and treated by staff can help to ease confusion about how the health system works and fears associated with providing personal information. Customer service can mean the difference between a health center being recognized as a provider of choice or being seen as a provider of last resort within the community.


“Keeping the patient experience in mind is at the core of customer service,” says Health Outreach Partners (HOP) Project Manager Sonia Lee. “Health centers can ask themselves: How does the patient feel about the way care is being delivered to them? What are the factors that make patients want to keep using our services?” 


Effective delivery of customer service depends upon equal participation from all health center staff, and a shared recognition that this approach is a priority for the organization. Implementing a customer service approach to care takes dedicated time and effort at the individual, program, and organizational levels. Sustaining this approach demands that health center staff value the core competencies of customer service and work with one another to achieve them, including:

  • Understanding customer service in healthcare as a patient-centered approach
  • Understanding what customers [patients] want and need
  • Encouraging adequate self-reflection
  • Developing and strengthening interpersonal skills
  • Developing support for practicing skills and for building in reflection time

HOP’s new training curriculum, Becoming a Health Center of Choice: Customer Service for Patient Engagement and Retention, supports health center staff in providing positive customer service experiences through a deeper understanding of what customer service is, the needs of health center customers, strategies to practice good customer service, and methods to prioritize customer service in the health center. HOP developed the curriculum at the request of health centers that expressed the need for customer service training following the implementation of the ACA.


“We say it’s [the curriculum] for all health center staff, not specific positions,” says HOP’s Project Manager Diana Lieu, who was part of the team that developed the curriculum. “We think the principles of customer service are crosscutting and apply to all positions, from the front desk staff to outreach workers, from providers to administrators.”


The curriculum is written using the Training-of-Trainers (TOT) model in order to equip health center staff with sufficient information, tools, and strategies to enable themselves and their peers to excel at customer service. There are five modules within the curriculum, including (1) Understanding Customer Service in Healthcare; (2) Knowing Your Customers; (3) The Role of Culture in Customer Service; (4) Practicing Customer Service; and (5) Making Customer Service a Priority. 


Since the development of the curriculum, HOP has trained over 39 health center representatives across the country. As one training participant stated, “The instruction and instructors provided tools to allow me to understand the culture and environment at health centers and now allows me to address the gaps that exist and issues that are frequently overlooked.”

1 Bureau of Primary Health Care, Health Resources & Services Administration. (2014). Health Centers and the Affordable Care Act Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://bphc.hrsa.gov/about/healthcenterfactsheet.pdf

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