Sue Jacques of Calgary, Alberta, an author and speaker on professionalism, civility, and respect in the workplace, learned to appreciate patient engagement after 2 medical procedures. In one office, a staff member was assigned to her during a procedure and personally followed up after. After bilateral eye surgery, her ophthalmologist phoned to ensure she was all right and inquire if she had questions.

“I had never had an experience like that before, and I needed it in that moment,” Jacques said. “Healthcare can be intimidating, and having someone who can speak a patient’s language and act as a liaison to ask questions and follow up with is good.”

The role of patient engagement staff is to improve the care process and facilitate communication between patients and staff. “They are there to listen, respond, and make sure patients’ concerns are dealt with in a compassionate and thoughtful manner,” Jacques said.

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She added, “Medicine has become a business, and a good business makes sure there is strong customer support.”

What they do

The duties of a patient engagement staff member are going to vary among practices. It is important, however, to ensure that this person’s role and responsibilities are well outlined. The staffer also needs to understand when they can help patients and when to pass concerns or issues to a doctor or another staff member.

“You don’t just assign this to someone and walk away,” said Jacques, who has a background in forensics and emergency room nursing. “It takes time and effort and a lot of care to decide how this works for each practitioner.”

The patient engagement staffer’s responsibilities, for instance, will be different for a practice that has a lot of patient turnover than for one whose patients have a lot of complex chronic conditions.

One option for a patient engagement representative is to make calls after procedures to check in on patients, answer questions and schedule follow-up visits. Another is to have someone who calls patients and lets them know about schedule changes or delays in their visit time. 

One of Jacques’ providers is notorious for being late and realized “it was ticking people off.” She now has a staffer who calls or texts people if there will be a delay.

“It takes a bit of time, but it can change the outcome of an entire exam if patients are notified,” she said. “Your whole attitude is different when you know you will be waiting or can come in late instead of it happening unexpectedly.”

Finally, she said a good way to use this staffer is as a point person for patients with chronic illnesses. They can relay patient issues to doctors, nurses, or pharmacists. This not only keeps the patient from having to talk with various people for care, but it keeps the provider in the loop with each patient.

“I manage the entire patient experience,” said Michael Taylor, the practice manager and patient engager for Ashutosh Tewari, MD, a urologist and prostate cancer specialist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. “I really take the lead to make sure everyone is comfortable and allow the medical staff to do what they do best.”

He said he “hand holds” patients who are having surgery, assisting them with radiologic imaging, biopsies, and follow-up appointments. He even sat in a waiting room talking with anxious spouses to “make them feel like family.” He nearly took a cab to a hospital in neighboring New Jersey to get pathology slides for a patient to avoid cancelling a surgery (although the slides were found before he made the trip). He even gives his cell phone number to patients in case they have questions or concerns.

Staffing the position

In hiring patient engagers, providers should be look for such customer service qualities as positivity, patience, and good problem-solving and communication skills, Jacques said. She also recommends hiring people with some medical background. These individuals do not necessarily need to be in the practice all day. A good candidate for the position of patient engager might be someone wanting to ease into retirement by cutting back hours or working a flexible schedule.

“It could be the perfect opportunity for someone who is happy to make follow-up calls between 6 and 9 in the evening,” she said.

Having a good patient engagement representative could be a way to get back to the basics of healthcare and “make sure the soul of the patient is being cared for,” Jacques said. 

“This is an opportunity to blend professionalism with civility and provide good care for people in their times of concern, trouble, worry or pain for them,” she said. “And if you can provide that kind of emotional care, it will enhance the care you are providing all around.”

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