Emergency Departments: Avoid the Service Guarantee Trap

The most common complaint about a trip to the emergency room (ER) is usually that the wait time at the ER was far too long.

Some emergency departments (EDs) have jumped on the bandwagon of offering service guarantees: unless a patient receives care in a certain amount of time, it’s free.

While at first glance this can seem like a strategic business move and simple solution to the consumer’s problem, service guarantees can actually pose serious challenges to EDs that could end up hurting their reputation and credibility. Many emergency departments have found that they did get an increase in patients, but due to systemic challenges in serving those patients it was actually detrimental to the department as a whole. Read more to find out how.

The Dangers of Service Guarantees for Emergency Departments

Michelle Bowe, the marketing director at Columbia Healthcare of Central Kentucky, was thinking about offering a service guarantee in order to boost patient admissions and improve their image.

It turns out, marketing directors who have tried service guarantees preface the idea with many warnings. When Bowe reached out to other marketing directors who had experience with service guarantees she was met with comments such as,

“You really don’t want to do this; our nurses hated this campaign; it’s a bigger animal than you realize.”

What these marketing directors hadn’t realized when implementing their service guarantees is that this strategy will quickly backfire if the proper operational foundation and systems are not in place.

Offering a service guarantee that can’t be met is far more detrimental to your ED than not having a guarantee at all.

doctor checking on female patientThe Importance of Communication and Understanding

Bowe also found that when it comes to service guarantees, communication and understanding your audience are extremely important factors, but are often overlooked.

She comments, “A lot of people used the word triage in their campaigns, mostly with 15-minute triage guarantees. My research indicated that the general public doesn’t understand what that means. What they care about is seeing the doctor.”

Implementing a service guarantee is not a strategy that can be quickly slapped together. The right infrastructure has to be behind it in order for it to work. This can take a lot of time, money, and energy and can be a fast-track to many potential problems if not carried out carefully.

For instance, “89% of pediatric emergency department visits occur in non–children’s hospitals, but only 6% of emergency departments have all the required equipment for pediatric care.”

How can a service guarantee be upheld in situations like this when the EDs are not even properly equipped with what visitors require?

Fortunately, there are other ways to distinguish an emergency department.

Where Service and Returning Customers are Getting Overlooked: Autism

People with autism visit emergency departments 4-10 times more often than their neurotypical counterparts, yet they are often misunderstood and do not receive proper treatment.

This is due to a combination of challenges explored in other blogs, but has to do with various challenges with communication, lack of proper training and knowledge of staff, and lack of proper resources on hand for individuals to calm and regulate themselves.

People with autism often don’t feel like they have a trusted place they can go, and if they knew about someplace that had training in autism and extra resources available people would consider driving extra time to get there to ensure they got the care they were looking for.

Keeping the Focus on Your Patients

In the healthcare industry, improving patient engagement is one of the biggest goals. With almost half of all US medical care being delivered by EDs, this is the perfect place to hone in on and begin optimizing the engagement process.

Medical centers are facing new obstacles every day in order to obtain new customers and revenue. With high deductible plans consumers have more options when it comes to choosing where they spend their money.

The key to success, according to Greg Kefer, the CMO at LifeLink, is for hospitals to start focusing on operating like traditional service-based businesses by placing their concern on their reputation and their brand while delivering the best service.

Third-Party Training and Certification can Deliver a Message of Quality Service for All

Select hospitals are doing a combination of autism training, an on-site review, and certification for their ED by a third party credentialing board. The certification board then works with the hospital to promote their efforts directly to the autism community and to the public, showing the world the commitment of your hospital Emergency Department to serving people with special needs, pursuing your mission of delivering better patient care to people of all types, and distinguish your emergency department from your competition as an industry leader in the area.

The autism population utilizes the healthcare system far more than typical people, so learning to better serve one of your most frequent and vulnerable customers can be a great way to do good things for your patients and your hospital.

Why does Autism Training and Service Matter to People without Autism?

Whether it is in healthcare, education or tourism people want to know that you care about delivering more than just a product or service to them. They want to have a good experience.

Showing that your ED has taken the extra effort to serve this population that also frequents your services helps to show people that you care enough to invest in giving better service and care for your patients in a time of cost cutting.

Many people in the autism community have to use healthcare services quite often, and they are accustomed to having bad experiences. Turn that around and you can create a loyal community that comes to your hospital first as well as showing your commitment to quality care to the public at large.

Branding and Customer Acquisition

In today’s modern world, social media makes it easier than ever for consumers to share their opinions with one another. A negative online review can quickly kill a brand’s image and if hospitals are not up to par in providing excellent service and ensuring their patient engagement process is impeccable, they could easily fall prey to this.

There’s a reason hospitals have spent almost $4.9 million dollars in local advertising in 2017 and why industry leader Kaiser Permanente has a multi-platform sponsorship program with the NBA – they see the immense value in building brand awareness and loyalty.

Customer acquisition has always been important, but customer retention should be just as much of a focus. This is where EDs have an incredible opportunity to turn first-time patients into life-long patients.

Kefer refers to the ED as the “front door” of the medical center where patients are interacting with the institution for the first time. What will their experience be like and will they want to return?

Dr. Ed Rafalski, PhD, BayCare’s chief strategy and marketing officer, says, “Clinical excellence is presumed: If your arm is broken and you go to the system, you expect them to fix it and for you to have the use of your arm back. But where we struggle as an industry is the service component, the navigation component and helping people get to the right place efficiently.”

Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH) understood the importance of patient engagement firsthand while undergoing a marketing campaign.

Dan Dunlop, the principal of the marketing agency Jennings, which partnered with BHM during the campaign, says, “The ED often serves as the front door to the hospital and provides a defining brand experience, for better or worse. It is very difficult to change perceptions of an ED through advertising alone. The marketing effort has to be accompanied by real change. That was certainly the case with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Our hope with this campaign was to pique the interest of local residents, generate talk in the community, and have them reconsider their long-held perceptions of this ED.”

Starting with patient engagement before jumping into marketing will ensure your ED has the proper systems in place and will prove to your consumers that you value making real improvements before talking about them.

Modernize With Mobile Technology

Consumers are already spending a vast amount of their time on their mobile phones. Cutting-edge businesses are utilizing this technology in order to enhance the experience patients have in the waiting room.

Communication is one of the most important things that can make or break someone’s waiting room encounter. Implementing chatbots that can interact with patients allows them to feel informed and taken care of even while waiting. Mobile technology can also alert patients of updates such as wait times, necessary testing, next steps, logistics, and basic medical questions.

Marketing Shares Your Message

Being able to clearly and simply communicate how your services are different from your competitors should always be at the forefront of your marketing campaigns. EDs can be a great marketing tool that not only helps to create a positive brand image, but can also boost retention.

“We look at our ER as a window of opportunity to get people into our hospital and see what quality service we provide,” says Andrew Mills, media relations manager of Columbia Healthcare Corporation’s Georgia division. “If they have a good experience there, they’re likely to come back to us in the future.”

EDs can also help bridge the gap between businesses that are operating multiple hospitals in various locations. “Since all of our hospitals have EDs, we could do advertising across the board for all of our hospitals,” says Mills. “Not all of our facilities have cardiology or obstetrics — The ED is the common denominator.”

In a case study from 2003, The Medical Center (TMC) in Bowling Green, Kentucky opened a $30 million dollar ER. The hospital’s goal was to position themselves as the “hospital of choice” and increase their ER volume. The marketing team put together an integrated marketing campaign that consisted of PR, advertising, community outreach, print, radio, TV, outdoor and direct mail components, and third party endorsements. Their campaign “We Save Lives” gained substantial traction quickly.

At their community outreach event, over 2,500 people attended and ER admissions increased by 25 percent, exceeding their original campaign goal.

BMH (mentioned above) also implemented a successful marketing campaign after renovating their ED. Their mission was to improve the hospital’s reputation after years of negative reviews.

The results from the campaign are powerful and prove just how effective proper marketing can be, even for a business with a less-than-satisfactory reputation.

  • “The results are that the community now understands our new approach to providing care in the ED,“ says Nicole Zinn, communications and social media manager for BMH. “The emergency department has taken the notion of a rapid care area and applied it to the whole department. All levels of acuity get to see the provider sooner rather than later. The right rooms are selected for the right patients, with more minor acuity patients being seen in our Rapid Care Rooms with just the right amount of resources applied to their cases.“

Within the first three weeks of the campaign, BMH saw a rise in new patients, noticing about four new ones each day. Their campaign microsite also received over 150,000 impressions between July and August.

The tactics that contributed to the campaign’s success included identifying three target audiences: individuals with commercial insurance, people living on the border of the state, and local ambulance services. The design team put together print, digital, and direct mail pieces that communicated their new approach to care.

When BayCare underwent a marketing campaign that ended up going viral online, they focused on creating messaging that was easy to understand and relatable for the consumer.

“We’re taking elements of the retail phenomenon that we’ve been seeing in spaces like Amazon Prime, OpenTable, Travelocity and Expedia, and now saying, ‘Let’s do it for healthcare,’ because God knows it’s a complex service,” says Dr. Rafalski. “You can do a lot by simplifying the message and making it easier for the consumer to figure out what they’re supposed to do. And so, in some ways, we’re doing what others are doing in other businesses and applying it to what healthcare truly needs — which is simplification in navigation — and then executing it creatively so it’s easy to digest.”

Keeping the focus on improving patient engagement, utilizing modern technology, and highlighting these developments through a strategic marketing campaign is an effective option for increasing your ED business. These strategies will help to create long-term success and a strong infrastructure rather than the temporary, but eventually problematic, band-aid fix, that service guarantees often are.

As Kefer says, “If hospitals are serious about patient engagement, they would be wise to look at the ED as priority 1A.”

Learn to better serve some of your most frequent patients through autism training and certification for your emergency department.

Learn More About Becoming a Certified Autism Center™

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