When is Wasted Time Really Customer Service?

July 30, 2014  |  Kristyna Culp, MBA

Across the healthcare system, people and organizations are seeking to increase efficiency. But not all “wasted time” in healthcare is truly wasted.

Some of the most important aspects of healthcare are less than 100% efficient by nature. Of course, we can and should strive for greater efficiency. But we also must understand that absolute efficiency would mean the elimination of the human elements of care.

This is one way that lean and Six Sigma strategies can come up short when it comes to healthcare. After all, these disciplines were developed to improve processes in manufacturing…but how similar is health care to manufacturing, really? People are not machines or widgets rolling off an assembly line. In fact, we’re in a business that involves humans caring for and touching (often literally) other humans. At some level, we have to accept that total efficiency is neither achievable nor desirable.

Choosing our battles

Don’t get me wrong: there is an important place for efficiency improvement in the processes that we use to do our jobs. This is one of the key challenges that clients hire my company to consult on. But these efficiencies are implemented toward an end — better care for patients — that doesn’t always align with the assumptions and ends of manufacturing process methods.

Take the intake process, for example. When it’s time for a patient to be seen by a health care provider, the most efficient way to notify them might be to yell out their name — but few people would consider that the best approach.

Some EDs have taken a lesson from the restaurant industry to improve their intake process. In some restaurants, the seater provides each patron with a hand-held pager that vibrates when their table is ready. In other dining establishments, the maître d’ might discreetly jot down a distinguishing feature of each person waiting for a table (“green jacket”) so they can easily spot the individual and approach them when a table is ready.

The intake process in an ED can use similar techniques to keep track of which patient is next to be treated and, when a space is ready, a member of the staff can escort the patient and family members back to the treatment area. Such an approach might look like wasted effort on a spreadsheet. But I submit that it’s one example of the many “little things” healthcare providers do that cumulatively add up to positive customer service.

Consider the technique of scripting — “canned” ways of communicating with patients that bring some uniformity to the process. There’s definitely a place for this — when discussing payment, for example. You might say, “How will you be paying for today’s care?” It’s a friendly and effective yet consistent way to address what could be a sensitive topic.

The danger, however, lies in trying to overscript our interactions with patients. On some level, we simply have to accept that large parts of our interactions are one human talking to another about occasionally difficult topics. There are some ways of phrasing things that can help resolve an issue more effectively, but in other cases, it’s just going to be a difficult conversation — and that’s OK.

Although improving efficiency in an ED is a worthwhile goal, there is a point at which additional efficiencies provide diminishing returns. People aren’t robots — either on the giving or receiving end of care.

At my firm, we start with the point of view that we can help EDs improve efficiency up to a point — without sacrificing care and compassion. Next time you think about waste in healthcare, just remember that not all “wasted time” has the same value: some “waste” actually contributes to the patient’s positive experience.

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR    Kristyna Culp MBA
blog_Kristyna
Kristyna creates workflow mapping and computer simulation model frameworks to validate, test, and quantify various scenarios to help clients make informed decisions about both operational and physical design improvements.

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