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Bedside Manners : Competitive Pressure Leads Medical Center to Prescribe Staff Training on Fine Points of Putting Patients at Ease

December 26, 1985|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

"Memorial Hospital seems to be on the lips on everyone at the supermarket today," the video narrator says. "So what happened? One little incident that had nothing to do with the excellent medical attention Rose Whister received has inadvertently fueled the rumor mill.

"On average, one dissatisfied patient will complain to 20 other people. And along the way the story will be distorted and exaggerated. For hospitals whose reputation and image is so strongly influenced by word-of-mouth reports from patients and employees, a little bad news can become a big problem."

Personal Responses

Of every 10 unhappy patients, Schipske said, only one will follow through with a formal complaint. The others usually fear they will be labeled as troublemakers if they speak out, and their care will suffer, she said.

Whenever St. Mary receives a complaint, Schipske said, both she and Sister Mary Lucille Desmond, the hospital's administrator, write a personal response to assure the patient that they are being taken seriously. Studies also show that patients who have been treated kindly are less inclined to file malpractice suits if problems later arise from their clinical treatment, she said.

So far, St. Mary's training program has been well-received by employees, Schipske said. It's too early to tell whether it will bring the hospital more business, she said, as past customers return or recommend the hospital to others in need of treatment. But several other hospitals have called for advice and guidance regarding the program, among them 200-bed Pacific Hospital of Long Beach.

"I don't think any hospital would have survived even in the past without a real caring attitude on the part of its employees," said Pacific Administrator Gerald S. Goldberg. "We have had a longstanding commitment in this hospital to customer relations."

Consumer Awareness Cited

But because "there has been so much emphasis on it," Goldberg said, Pacific is considering a more formal program like the one at St. Mary.

"Customer relations definitely does have a bottom-line impact," he said. "The only reason it might be more important today is that consumers are making more of their health care decisions" instead of blindly following the recommendations of their doctor.

At rival Memorial Medical Center, a similar training program called "That Extra Measure of Care" has been in operation for almost two years, said Dr. Gil Taylor, director of human resources development. That program was designed by nationally recognized consultant Kristi Peterson and then passed on to about 60 members of the Memorial staff. In turn, those employees have trained nearly 2,000 of their 3,500 co-workers.

"Hospitals for a long time have relied on their clinical expertise" to draw patients, Taylor said. "But suddenly we've realized that people can go to pretty much any hospital they want . . . and what they remember is not the clinical care, they take that for granted . . ..

'A Human Touch'

"What they really remember is whether the nurses and the admissions people and the accounting people took the time to explain things to them and evidenced that they're really concerned about that patient's recovery."

Aside from the fact that good customer relations can bring a hospital more business, Taylor said, there is evidence that patients recover faster when they are given care that lends "a human touch."

He said Memorial plans to develop a reward system for staff members who show the best customer relations. And the hospital will emphasize those same skills when screening new employees, Taylor said.

Taylor said the hospital may even conduct a telephone poll of past patients to seek their comments and to demonstrate in another way that the hospital is trying to be sensitive to its customers.

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