1. Work as a team with office staff. Everyone at the office, from the surgeon to the front desk staff, must work together to create a better patient experience. "When I see a patient, we have a nurse and clinical coordinator at the office to help coordinate their care," says Purnendu Gupta, MD, medical director of the Chicago Spine Center at Weiss Memorial Hospital. "I do my best to discuss the patient's plan so everyone is on the same page. Many time's it's overwhelming for patients when they come and see the doctor, but if we all have the same information we can answer their questions and develop a rapport with the patients."
2. Make sure you're accessible for patients and referring physicians. You must be able to accommodate for spine patients and see them in a timely fashion. "If patients can't get in to see you, you're already in the hole before you've started," says Andrew Hecht, MD, orthopedic surgeon and Co-director of Spine Surgery and Director of the Spine Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "Get them in so they can get worked up and you can figure out what studies and conservative treatment they need before facilitating a surgical consultation."
3. Schedule patients appropriately. One of the most frustrating experiences at the physician's office is long wait times. You want to begin the appointment on time and schedule enough time with the patient to answer all their questions. "They should feel like the doctor is there for them," says Richard N.W. Wohns, MD, JD, MBA, founder and president of NeoSpine in the Puget Sound region of Washington. "Make sure patients are really not kept in the waiting room or rushed through their visit."
4. Walk through diagnoses and imaging studies with the patients. After taking the MRI or other diagnostic tests, explain to the patient what the results mean and why you are recommending different types of treatment. "I do this to help people understand and be more comfortable with their care," says Dr. Gupta. "I show them the pictures on their MRI so they can see the difference between a level with no problem versus a level with a disc herniation. Those pictures are priceless for patients to help wrap their head around what is going on."
5. Connect with the patient on their treatment plan. Based on diagnostic information, tailor a treatment plan with the patient and make sure patients understand why compliance is so important. "We want patients to leave their examinations feeling like they have answers to their question about what their problem is," says Dr. Gupta. "Surgery isn't always the answer, but at least they have a plan of what will happen and understand the next step in treatment."
6. Spend a few extra minutes to connect during the initial evaluation. When Dr. Gupta visits patients, he takes his time after the initial evaluation to discuss their treatment plan and answer any additional questions they have. "The key thing is to make patients feel comfortable asking questions and spending the time to answer them," says Dr. Gupta. "At the end of every visit, I ask patients if they have any other questions. Many times they don't, but I've made myself available to the patient. Patients need to feel that every staff member in the office is concerned about them and can provide good care."
7. Speak with patients about their surgery instead of bringing in the nurse. Patients are often more comfortable when surgeons discuss procedures with them instead of mid-level providers. While sending in the nurse to discuss surgery expectations may speed the process and allow for more patients, it can make patients nervous. "The doctor might be rushed and have the assistant come in and tell the patients about surgery, but patients feel more comfortable if they have the extra five to 10 minutes with the doctor," says Dr. Wohns.
8. Integrate spine care. Patients have a better experience when spine care is integrated into the practice or center. "It's hard to get patients to see the right specialist, especially based on a phone call, but the willingness to see patients and get them going in the right direction is key," says Dr. Hecht. "Very often this requires a change in the mentality of the spine practice professional. When I see patients who aren't a candidate for surgery, I can send them to the non-operative specialist the same day so their care is coordinated. That makes a lasting positive impression on patients."
9. Have additional educational information available. Include educational information about back pain and care in the waiting room and online so patients have access to a deeper understanding of overall spine health. "You can have a brochure or practice website available for patient use," says Dr. Wohns. "You want to reinforce the whole content of the visit so when patients leave the office and go home, they have information written down as a reference for their treatment. They can point to the photos or text and understand what is going on inside of them."
10. Update the interior to create a warm environment. Spine practices can make their clinic rooms more comfortable by easing the "sterile" environment feel and incorporating furniture that makes patients feel at home. Instead of a metallic exam table, use a wooden exam table and comfortable chairs instead of cold office chairs. "You want people to feel like they are in their homes or restaurants," says Ty Thaiyananthan, MD, a neurosurgeon focusing on minimally invasive spine surgery and founder of BASIC Spine in Newport Beach, Calif. "On one side of our clinic, we actually added ceiling and floor windows and planted foliage on the other side so when patients are waiting they feel a connection to nature. We have art in the clinic rooms and paint the walls with an aesthetically pleasing color. There isn't any white in our clinic."
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