Hospital Marketing: Is There a Difference Between “Patient” and “Customer”?

Raising the bar on customer service in hospitals

Customer or patient? Some hospital marketers consider the words synonymous. Others prefer “patient” as a more precise description of their target. Make no mistake; there is nuance between the two. Take a look at the definitions:

Patient: (noun) A person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment. Synonyms: sick person. (adjective) Able to accept or tolerate delays, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Synonyms: Uncomplaining, resigned.

Customer: (noun) A person or organization that consumes products (goods or services) and has the ability to choose between suppliers. Synonyms: consumer, client, purchaser, buyer, patron, shopper.

“Patient” is passive and assumes that a decision to receive care, and where to receive it, has been made. The definition of “customer” holds choice at the core. As hospital marketers, we know our audience has a choice; it’s reflected in the fierce competition for preference in the marketplace. But recognition and prioritization of the matter of choice tends to fade once a customer enters a hospital. Often, the mindset becomes one of resignation. While there’s no doubt that hospital staff have the customer’s best care in mind, that doesn’t always translate to the best possible experience. Shoulders slouch as hours pass in waiting rooms. Fears escalate as days go by awaiting results.

Here’s an example. The mother of a colleague was admitted to a hospital after a cardiac event. She spent nearly three full days as an inpatient getting stabilized, then was released with the understanding that her cardiologist would consult a specialist and the specialist’s office would call her to confirm a consultation and a procedure date. Six days passed without a call.

Is this acceptable in other service scenarios? No.

The operational complexities of a health system are immense and unpredictable, but there are ways to deliver an improved customer experience regardless of those realities. In the example above, I can imagine that coordinating a conversation between the two clinicians took days. Add to that identifying availability in a full care team’s schedule and juggling the needs of a multitude of other patients. But in the absence of full resolution, a brief call with a simple message like, “We’re working on it; how are you feeling?” would have gone a long, long way.

So, I offer these four considerations for hospital marketing leaders.

  1. What can you learn and apply from exceptional service brands? (Think Nordstrom, Zappos and Southwest Airlines.)
  2. How can you make customer service an organizational priority? What internal metrics/data are available to quantifiably justify a customer-service philosophy? What’s the lifetime value of a customer to your organization?
  3. What steps can you take to reduce the experiential friction of a “patient” so that the next time they make a choice as a “customer,” they choose your organization? What quality service metrics can you establish to make small advancements and/or to eliminate points of friction?
  4. How can you leverage your brand internally to engage and empower staff to prioritize service in their day-to-day work? How can you recognize those who do this well?
Kathy Selker
I’m Kathy Selker. My work as CEO of Northlich, a Cincinnati-based healthcare marketing agency, has taught me a great deal about how hospitals and health systems can best connect with women to make the most positive impact in their lives.
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