Valuable lessons for urologists from the auto service industry

July 1, 2012

People, whether they need their car fixed or treatment for a urologic condition, expect high-quality service, and they are disappointed when their expectations aren't met.

Key Points

Ultimately, some additional information was needed that could only be obtained from the car's computer, and there was no Acura dealer in town. Vince suggested going to a Honda dealer, as their equipment is sometimes compatible. While their free shuttle service took me to eat lunch nearby, the local Honda store plugged in and determined that I had a bad oxygen sensor. While they did not have this part, they provided everything I needed to communicate the results and facilitate a repair with another dealer (free of charge).

This particular device lies in the exhaust path, and a damaged sensor can sometimes cause problems downstream, leading to very expensive repairs. I reported the findings to Vince, who suggested I get it replaced as soon as possible, quoted the parts/labor price I should expect to pay at an authorized service dealer anywhere in the nation ($228), and searched for service facilities along my future route.

I will long remember how well I was treated by everyone who helped and how an unexpected stress was turned into a favorable memory by folks I will probably never see again.

My experience with auto service may well be the norm, rather than the exception. People, whether they need their car fixed or treatment for a urologic condition, expect high-quality service, and they are disappointed when their expectations aren't met. People also expect consistent service. Successful enterprises know that providing good customer service costs money. The return on this investment is substantial. It is cheaper to retain loyal customers than to attract new ones. Smart businesses understand customer needs and expectations, and try to meet them. They relentlessly measure their performance.

Back on the road, I pondered the parallels in my story to health care and wondered: What if I had experienced a medical problem far from home instead of car trouble? Would my primary care physician's office have answered the phone on the first ring and immediately sensed my concern? Would they have transferred me to my doctor within minutes? Would the physician have listened patiently and asked key questions? Would he be able to quickly locate my records while we spoke? Would he have been able to help me work through the possible solutions to my problem or help guide me to a local urgent care facility? Would I have been treated like royalty by the receptionist and nurses? Would anyone have asked how my wife was faring while I was being treated? Would the on call specialist have seen me as an opportunity to shine? Would my prescription beat me to the pharmacy and include all of the needed information? Would I have left there thinking, "I cannot believe how well I was treated by people who will probably never see me again"?

Make outstanding service the norm

While medical care is arguably different than automobile maintenance, we could take a few lessons from the service industry. Patients have expectations, and we might learn to better understand them, help manage them, and strive to exceed them. Delivering an outstanding experience in the office could be the norm, not the exception. Patient satisfaction instruments could be viewed as opportunities rather than threats. Portals that increase a patient's visibility of their medical records and return some control of the record to them could soon become a basic requirement rather than a cutting-edge enhancement. Treating patients like customers could become as natural as turning on the lights.

Bottom line: As we enter an age of consumer-driven health care, we need not look far for outstanding examples of customer service. It may not come naturally to us yet, but I suspect we can learn from a place we all know and are loyal to-our auto service shop. We have spent years honing our talents, including the physician-patient relationship; our patient's expectations have changed a bit, and we can too.

Dr. Dowling is an independent consultant and the former medical director of a large metropolitan urology practice. He resides in Fort Worth, TX.