For medical travelers, there are many factors that come into play when choosing an international healthcare provider for their treatment. Quality, potential savings, quick access and the availability of a particular procedure are at the top of most people’s list. Additional factors may include proximity, familiarity with the language and culture and safety at the destination. The difference between the first and second group of elements is that the former can be controlled by hospitals while the latter cannot.
If one looks closely at the dynamics involved in a patient’s decision process to travel overseas for care, there is one more factor that is critically important to this process but, surprisingly, rarely gets mentioned.
An interaction can be defined as a “reciprocal action or influence.” Interactions are especially relevant to the activity of medical tourism as they are one of the few “performance indicators” that patients can reliably judge for themselves. While a hospital’s claims about quality indicators and pricing may be impressive, there is often an element of doubt on behalf of the patient about the veracity of those claims. After all, quality indicators can be manipulated or exaggerated and prices can be changed. And although interactions may be subjective, they carry a lot of weight in the patient’s mind. In fact, studies have shown that, for a patient, the effectiveness of the interaction with the health providers is equally important as the accuracy of the diagnosis, treatment and procedure.
What can hospitals do to improve interactions with international patients?
Train staff to anticipate the needs and expectations of international patients
International patients have different needs and expectations than local patients. Interactions can suffer if hospital personnel do not understand these differences. For example, international patients are often requesting information and price quotes from multiple hospitals; they are expecting quick responses with relevant information. They are also, in many cases, expecting a VIP type medical tourism experience with a lot of hand-holding. To meet or exceed expectations, interactions need to be memorable. From first contact with a potential patient, all the way through the continuum of care, hospital staff needs to be proactive in all interactions. For example:
- Knowing how to address patient concerns and barriers to traveling abroad
- Using the right questions to discern which patients are not ideal medical travelers
- Knowing how to handle patient complaints when these occur
- Focusing on the small details that ultimately make for an outstanding patient experience
- Showing real empathy for their circumstances
- Understanding cultural differences
Improve language and cultural competency
As a rule, international hospitals are operating in multicultural contexts and interacting with patients who have different perspectives, expectations and practices regarding their health and wellness. Cultural differences may include verbal and nonverbal communication, spatial behavior, diet preferences, and even the way people view time.
Take the example of a U.S. patient visiting a hospital located in Latin America or the Middle East. Oftentimes these patients will be coming into contact with hospital staff that is generally less direct in the way they communicate with others, and certainly much more laid back in attitude. U.S. patients may feel irritated when they don’t receive a straight answer to what they perceive as a yes or no question. They might get impatient when a nurse tells them the doctor will be by in a “few minutes” and the doctor does not show up for another forty-five minutes.
These type of situations hurt interactions between patients and hospital staff ultimately leading to a poor patient experience. To improve language and cultural competency, hospitals should:
- Designs services and supports to meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse groups (e.g. flexible times, service hours, or appointments; language access services; culturally-based advocacy; traditional healers, culture-specific assessments, and interventions and treatment).
- Hire culturally diverse staff
- Train staff to understand different cultural traditions
- Use interpreters
- Have literature available in different languages
Doing so will break down barriers and improve communication between staff and patients, ultimately enhancing interactions which lead to a better patient experience.
Gather patient feedback and act on it
Hospitals should make a habit of constantly surveying their international patients to monitor their satisfaction. This includes asking questions about their interactions with doctors, nurses, international office staff, patient assistants, food servers, chauffeurs and others who they typically have contact with. Problem areas should be pinpointed and addressed in order to continually improve interactions between international patients and your staff.
As competition for international patients increases, hospital leaders need to go beyond traditional quality indicators as the primary marketing tool to attract and retain international patients. While great healthcare quality statistics and state-of-the-art technology are important elements to promote, there also needs to be a strong focus on improving the interactions that occur at the different patient touch points for an international program to be successful over the long term.