Addressing the whole patient rather than a single body part can help the patient justify the expense of the procedure and help the surgeon maintain a steady profit margin, says Donn Chatham, M.D., of Facial Plastic Surgery, Louisville, Ky. "In today's economy, patients are after good results that contain 'value.' This doesn't mean cheap or discounted," Dr. Chatham says, "It means a service that is fairly priced for the perceived benefit."
One way to enhance the perceived benefit is to make each patient feel as though he or she is the practice's most important patient. "It is important that each patient be afforded the respect and attention that every human being deserves. The patient in the consultation at that moment should be the most important patient in the doctor's practice," Dr. Chatham says. "Sometimes it helps to think of that patient as a member of one's family, who has wishes and fears and imperfections and strengths just like everyone. I tell patients that my primary concern is for their well-being, whether or not this includes performing a procedure. My job is to act as their advocate, always putting their interests first. We also discuss that their physical health, emotional and psychological health, social system and even spiritual health are all important if they are to have an optimal outcome," Dr. Chatham says.Along the same lines, Cleveland cosmetic surgeon Mark Foglietti, D.O., suggests that patients need to believe the surgeon they chose truly understands their concerns and cares about them as individuals. "This includes the practice support staff — nurses, secretaries, aestheticians and residents — as well," Dr. Foglietti says. "We encourage our patients to return preoperatively as many times as they need, without additional consultation charge, to discuss their surgical options, risks and complications, and we encourage them to bring significant others along with them." This helps patients feel valued rather than rushed into making a decision, he says.
CUSTOMIZED CARE Patients don't want to feel as if they are part of an assembly line of cookie-cutter clients, the surgeons caution. "We need to really listen to our patients and avoid interrupting after a minute or so, or hurrying the patient," Dr. Chatham says. "The more carefully we listen to our patients express the reason they wanted the consultation, the better able we'll be to correctly meet their needs."
Some patients are difficult to "read," he acknowledges. They may not be straightforward or they may be poor communicators. "This can challenge even the most attentive physician," Dr. Chatham says. "But if we keep in mind that most of our patients want to feel better about themselves and have taken the time and risk to consult with a plastic surgeon because they are looking for a solution to a perceived problem," this, he maintains, can help the surgeon ultimately understand the patient's mind-set.
A tangible value-added service that can help attract and/or retain one's patients is a reward point program, which is a successful marketing tool used by many high-end retailers and other for-profit entities.
"Each patient should feel they are valued and important regardless of whether they are seeking a facial or a facelift," Dr. Chatham says. "Then the practice can couple the primary service with a reward — a skincare product or a facial or skincare samples or a gift card." Other, more subtle, value-added perks include giving the patient uninterrupted time, sharing additional helpful information with them and, when appropriate, calling them later to see how they are doing.
"Ultimately, our customer service should rival the best that other sectors offer. When patients like the way they were treated and receive a good result for their investment, then they are likely to speak positively about their physician. Hopefully all of us try to improve each day we are in practice," Dr. Chatham says.
The surgeon should never skimp on the medical history if he or she wants to clearly convey that the whole person — and not the body part slated for surgery — is of utmost importance, Dr. Foglietti says.
"A thorough medical history and review of medications is paramount. Medical clearance from subspecialists — i.e., cardiology, rheumatology, psychiatry, etc. — should be initiated by your office and discussed with the patient at the initial and subsequent office visits. By the time the patient's surgery date and anesthesia evaluation arrive, consults and clearances should have been reviewed," Dr. Foglietti says "This tells a patient that their health is more important than a cosmetic outcome. Don't hesitate to delay or even cancel a surgery if health concerns arise."
SOCIAL NETWORKING Some physicians are employing social networking sites such as Facebook as a way to help patients and prospective patients feel connected to them. This may seem like a way to provide added value to patients without necessarily spending additional time with the patients, but experts say that care must be taken to ensure medical advice is not dispensed in this type of forum, and that patients who are less than satisfied with an outcome do not use the site to denigrate the surgeon's professional reputation.
"You cannot have a 24-hour open consultation available," Dr. Foglietti says. "Round-the-clock availability for emergencies is one thing, but giving patients total access at all times can create and contribute to obsessive behavior. Social media is not private enough to conduct medical care and treatment. Evaluating a patient in a structured environment in the office setting maintains a formality that is needed for appropriate and professional interaction."
Dr. Chatham suggests that while comments on Facebook or tweets on Twitter can offer additional means of "support" in matters that are neither time-sensitive nor procedure-specific, the most important social interaction between a physician and patient is still that which occurs face-to-face in the office or the surgical suite.
It's also important for the physician to get to know his or her patients as well as possible, Dr. Chatham says. "The level of care — and the patient's experience — will be enhanced immeasurably by this," he says.
POSTOP IMPORTANCE Value-added care is not all about the interaction that goes into attracting patients and making them feel comfortable and valued leading up to surgery. Postop management is also crucial. "The post-procedure patient will need ongoing positive support by the physician for some time afterwards, and even more support if there is a problem or perceived problem," Dr. Chatham says. "In today's world of digital answering machines and hurried appointments, the sound of your doctor's voice calling to check on you after a procedure is very reassuring, and, ultimately," he says, "isn't this what patients come to us for?"