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Emerging Medical Trends #3: Are your Patients Adrift in Virtual Outer Space?

Posted on Aug 16, 2017 by Lori Boyer

    We are on post #3 of our medical series on the six key challenges uncovered in a recent study of 500 medical practices. Check out our past posts here:

    Today we are delving into ways to improve communication with your patients.

    Mars Climate Orbiter teaches us a lesson about patient-provider communicationThe year was 1998. After 10 long months in space, the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter was nearing the Martian surface. It was to be the first weather observer to ever touch down on another planet. Excitement was palpable. But as it made its final approach to the red planet, the orbiter suddenly vanished. It didn’t take long for NASA to realize that it was gone for good.


    What in the world happened?

    Scientists on Earth scrambled to figure out what had transpired. All too soon, it became apparent that the problem lay not with the intricate craft itself, but in a miscommunication to that craft. On Earth, scientists had calculated the force the thrusters needed in the English unit of pounds. Unfortunately, the craft itself was using the metric system. The result? The craft flew too close to Mars’ surface and burned up in its atmosphere.

    Poor communication leads to poor outcomes

    Just like NASA and the ill-fated Mars Climate Orbiter, our recent study found that communication is key to the success of every medical practice. And when that communication breaks down, it can be Poor communication can lead to practice failurevery costly. Unfortunately, communication is not as easy as it seems like it should be. Sometimes it can feel as if our patients are out in space and we’re trying to communicate in a way that just isn’t working.

    It is estimated that the cost of lost patients due to dissatisfaction is $200,000 over the life of a practice. Ouch. 

    Research shows that patient satisfaction is directly correlated to strong relationships.

    How do you build these strong relationships?

    Yes, in-person communication is vital.

    While a patient is in the office, it is absolutely crucial that every interaction is helpful, supportive, and kind. Each staff member, from the receptionist to the doctor, should be attentive and compassionate. That is a given.

    But let me ask you a question. How many hours is your average patient IN the office compared to how many hours they are OUT of your office?

    In a world where being “always connected” is the norm, it is important to maintain contact with patients even when they are not right in front of you.

    Texting is emerging as the future of communication

    The 2017 Solutionreach Patient-Provider Study found that virtual communication is becoming more and more important to the success of medical practices. This is especially true with millennials, our largest population segment.

    Millennials and baby boomers both want their medical practices to text them

    Millennials are not only the largest population group, but they are also the patients most likely to be unhappy with their current practice (42 percent say they will probably find a new medical practice in the next few years).

    Experts anticipate that millennial preferences will drive the future of healthcare. And what do they want? Text.

    • Three out of four millennials want to receive text messages from their medical provider.
    • Sixty-two percent want to be able to be the one to initiate a text conversation with their medical provider.

    But it’s not just millennials. Even the “older” generations want to take their conversations online. Would you believe that more than half of baby boomers and Gen Xers want to communicate with your office via email, text, or online portals? And nearly half—42 percent—want to be able to initiate text messages with you.  

    Don’t type at me like that!

    Unfortunately, texting is not as easy as talking in person. Like Earth trying to communicate with the Mars Climate Orbiter, long distance communication can easily get lost in translation. Communicating electronically is very different than in-person communication. It is almost like learning a whole new language.

    But if you want to be successful, it is a language that you MUST learn. Lesson #1 of electronic messaging?

              Just because you intend a certain sentiment doesn’t mean it’s received that way. 

    I’m going to say that again.

              Just because you intend a certain sentiment doesn’t mean it’s received that way.

    If you don’t take anything else away from this post, remember that one sentence. When we talk to someone in-person, the vast majority of our message is relayed through body language, tone, and facial expression.

    When we communicate through text message or email, those elements are lost. Even worse, multiple studies have shown that we naturally assign a negative emotion to most “neutral” electronic messages. Even when no offense was intended, without the body language we’ve come to rely on, we naturally assume someone is unhappy.

    Consider this common example:

    Your text:  You missed your appointment today with (Doctor). Please call (office number) to reschedule.It is easy to miscommunicate with patients over text

    What your patient “hears:” Hey jerk. You were so inconsiderate that you skipped your appointment. You’d better reschedule. (We may be irritated when you call).  

    A better version: Oh shoot! Looks like something came up during your appointment with (Doctor). No worries. Call us today at (office number) and we’d be happy to reschedule. :)

    Could you feel the difference?

    Send the right message with these four tricks

    It is important that when you text or email that you insert some of that missing feeling into the message. Here are a few quick tips for learning to communicate in the era of virtual talking.

    Be personal but professional. Your texts should reflect the personality of your individual practice. This personality depends on multiple factors including practice size, specialty, target patient, and more. Every practice will be slightly different. Using personality helps your patient feel more like they’re receiving an individualized message, not something computer-generated. Don’t be afraid to be funny or compassionate or personal.

    However, you should also maintain your professionalism when texting. While this message, "read abt yr dog on FB, sry 4 yr loss,” may be fine for a friend, it reflects a poor image for your practice. Avoid excessive use of emoticons, exclamation points, and capitalization as well (DON’T YELL!).

    Texting can help patient-provider communicationDon’t be afraid of length. Yes, you should stick to the standard 160 characters (any more than that and the message will get broken up into two or more texts). But don’t be too brief. Brief messages are often interpreted to be curt. Use enough words to accurately convey not just the instruction but the feeling behind each message.

    Convey emotion through words. In the texting example above, your practice is messaging someone who has dropped the ball. They didn’t show up for an appointment. They know that is irresponsible and perhaps worry that your practice will be upset. A neutral message will automatically be construed as negative. Injecting a few positive words in the text will alleviate these feelings.

    But even completely neutral messages such as appointment reminders or recare messages are much more effective when you give them a dose of positivity. Here are a few words you could consider adding to almost any text to give it a needed shot of positive emotion: excited, happy, delighted, pleased, eager, grateful, wonderful, fantastic, marvelous.

    Rethink punctuation. When it comes to texting, you need to erase all of the things you learned in English 101 about punctuation. This is especially true when you are having two-way texting conversations. A study found that text replies that end in a period are nearly always interpreted to be aggressive or irritated. Similarly, texters say that sentences with no period feel open ended (so the conversation could continue if desired), while using an exclamation point makes a person seem more sincere. Consider this example:

    • Patient text: Is it okay if I bring my son with me to my appointment on Wednesday?
    • Practice reply: Sure. 

    The period makes people read the message as if you will allow it but you might not be happy about it.

    • Patient text: Is it okay if I bring my son with me to my appointment on Wednesday?
    • Practice reply: Sure!

    Which response would you rather receive? Mastering the language of “text” will not only increase patient satisfaction and engagement, but it will also increase the response rates. No-shows will decrease, recare numbers will grow, and your practice will thrive.

    Don't let patient communication leave you adrift

    And, unlike the Mars Climate Orbiter, you will arrive at your destination safely.  

    Wanting to know more about the future of texting with your patients? Read What’s Next with Text.

    Read Now

    Lori Boyer

    Lori Boyer

    Lori Boyer has spent over a decade developing content and customer strategy for a wide variety of companies. She especially loves "walking a mile" in the shoes of her target audience. At Solutionreach we focus on relationships - building and maintaining them. She does the same. Lori Boyer is a lover of crisp fall mornings, a good book, and just about anything Beauty and the Beast related.

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