Quality patient care is ‘vital link’ at MUSC

by Cindy A. Abole, Public Relations

They’re a small link in a big chain. That’s the best way to describe Margaret Robertson’s view of how today’s customer service departments have emerged as a vital link between customer and company in almost every type of business including computers/software, retail, hotels, mail order companies and even hospitals.

As customer satisfaction coordinator for MUSC, Robertson believes that more hospital environments are raising standards to provide better service for their most important asset: the patient. Hospitals are also seeking more innovative ways to measure their own effectiveness within competitive health care markets. Today, people are learning how to speak out when it comes to their hospital experience and care. Within MUSC’s busy environment, the act of voicing a complaint or experience can be just a visit or phone call away.

At first glance, Robertson hardly fits the stereotype of a hard, insensitive, behind-the-counter service representative within her quiet office located across from the university hospital complex. She’s quite the opposite with her smile and pleasant demeanor. Her job can be described as a cross between a friendly hotel concierge and a local department store’s customer service clerk. Robertson handles complaints to the Medical Center through this office.

“The perception of how you are and act is seen differently through other people’s eyes,” said Robertson, who came to her position with a wealth of customer service experience including complaint resolution. “Good customer service is a small price to pay to achieve satisfaction. If the service is good, no one should ever need to go through us.”

In May 1997, the Customer Satisfaction Office, part of a Division of Service Quality, Department of Support Services, assumed the responsibility to answer questions, concerns, and complaints from patients, guests and staff. A formal process for reviewing patient complaints and provide assistance to resolve conflicts is required by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. JCAHO is the major accrediting agency for hospitals that evaluates and sets the standard for healthcare in more than 18,000 medical organizations nationwide.

MUSC Medical Center is comprised of three hospitals—Medical University Hospital, MUSC Children’s Hospital, and the Institute of Psychiatry—totaling approximately 596 beds. The growth and expansion of MUSC's patient care facilities dictated the need to have a process for addressing the concerns of customers. Although a process to address complaints and questions existed even prior to 1997, it was limited in providing useable information suitable for tracking the medical center’s complaints, suggestions and concerns. The current process uses a computer tracking program called “Respond 2,” a user friendly program that can be modified to meet the needs of the Medical Center. The service has been promoted through patient information folders and brochures which are strategically placed around hospital clinics, waiting areas and off-site offices.

The process is simple. Individuals can direct their complaint either in person or through a direct telephone number. As a complaint is logged and filed in the Customer Satisfaction’s “Respond 2" computer database system, it is categorized under three areas: area/unit/department, occurrence type, and nature of comment. If the complaint relates to patient care, it is forwarded to the Medical Center Risk Management office which handles clinical, financial and legal issues. All other complaints are handled through a network of contacts throughout the medical center so that the issue can be resolved at the lowest level possible. The department’s goal is to respond to all complaints within a 48-hour time period.

“It’s either feast or famine,” admits Robertson describing the amount of complaints or inquiries received through her office. “It doesn’t matter how mad people are, as long as you can respond to them. Even if it's to respond and say we still don’t have any news or we’re still investigating your inquiry. They’re just thrilled. I want to let them know that I do care about their complaint and that I am concerned.”

“The program helps us address our patients needs by fixing any problems and satisfying customers,” said Pam Cipriano, Ph.D., R.N., administrator of Clinical Services.

The office handles inquiries from Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beyond these hours and on weekends, the hospital operator provides assistance by routing the caller to the Medical Center’s hospital services coordinators or administrator on call to resolve an issue. If complete resolution is not obtained, it is then forwarded to the Customer Satisfaction office the next working day. Robertson logs it into the database and continues with other follow-up procedures.

“It really has been a wonderful experience,” Robertson said. “The success for me is the ability to handle complaint calls quickly. It is the key to the program’s success. Due to the cooperative efforts of Risk Management, the network of clinical and departmental contacts and all medical center staff, the percentage of resolved concerns and complaints reached a healthy 98 percent during the first year.” And people have reacted positively to resolution. Robertson remembers the thankful response of one customer who sent her a basket of flowers. “It’s nice to get something positive from a complaint.”

Besides handling customer satisfaction, the Division of Service Quality employs two account executives who continually assess environment-of-care issues to help minimize possible concerns. The office also has nine guest relations representatives assigned throughout the Medical Center to assist patients, family members, guests and nursing staff, which helps to minimize possible concerns or complaints.

Currently, the office is confirming plans for a bench-marking project which will hopefully link MUSC to other “Respond 2" data based networked hospitals in North and South Carolina, such as the University of North Carolina and Greenville Hospital System.

“It’s a valuable tool that we present the results of our data to the Administrative Group and the Medical Center Management Team,” said Billy Bloodsworth, manager of Service Quality. “It provides insight because it allows us to identify grouping or trends by areas or units. We can use the data as an educational tool for everyone. It will always be a benefit.” The results from complaints or concerns can be used for training, retraining and other performance improvement projects. For more information on the Customer Satisfaction office, contact Robertson at 792-5555.

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