The disturbing reason why patients disappear...and its impact to your bottom line

Patient satisfaction is the cornerstone of patient retention. The trouble is, when patients leave your practice they say nothing at all…they simply don’t return. You never knew they were unhappy.

It's difficult to detect, but it is a perception of indifference that causes most people to quit coming back. And the financial loss to your business is nothing to take lightly. 

The perplexing thing about this paradox of "disappearing patients" is that they're not around to ask why they aren't patients anymore. Less than four percent of patients leaving a business complain to you.

With charts packed to the rafters, it’s next to impossible to tell which individuals are still "bonded" to your organization (and likely to return), and which charts are ready for the recycled paper bin.

You can guess some of the reasons: Perhaps they were attracted by the competition; they acted on a trusted referral; they have no current need; they moved; they died...or maybe their son-in-law went into practice. Intuitive or obvious, all these are just the minor issues.

The biggest reason that people take their business elsewhere is that they perceive an attitude of indifference -- meaning how they felt about the experience. "Indifference" wins by a staggering 68 percent...that's nearly seven out of 10. And the other categories aren't even close:

Why customers stop buying

Die - 1 percent
Move away - 3 percent
Formed other relationships - 5 percent
For competitive reasons - 9 percent
Product/service dissatisfaction - 14 percent

And 68 percent quit because of an attitude of indifference by one or more persons representing the business.

Although not specifically about healthcare, the results of this well-respected business report1 have been validated in many service areas including healthcare, hospital and patient satisfaction surveys. (Other surveys say as much as 80 percent.)

"That's not my practice!"
Healthcare is a caring profession, and in our experience, service is delivered by caring professionals and staff. But feeling an "attitude of indifference" is not the same as judging the quality of medical care or the cost.

In the total patient experience, indifference could come from how the phone is answered, enduring delays in the office schedule, or even the cost and convenience of parking. The process of building and maintaining rapport and achieving satisfaction is all in how they were treated.

As intangible as those things seem, even more challenging is what the business does not do…such as the lack of a friendly greeting, not having appointment reminders, after-care calls or other routines to keep in touch with patients. Often it's the small things that make a big difference.

The loss of one patient is large and far-reaching
Of course, every patient is important, but avoiding the disappearance of a single patient is financially significant to the business. High patient satisfaction is a primary ingredient in patient loyalty or bonding with the organization.

Here are six basic business reasons to make patient retention a high priority:

  • Lost future patient care opportunity. In the retail world it's called "repeat business," and when a patient leaves the practice or organization they're likely to be lost forever.
  • Lost patient referrals. Even satisfied patients may leave your organization, but devoted patients will refer to you. In most organizations patient referrals produce a high return-on-investment.
  • Risk to reputation. Dissatisfied individuals not only don't make referrals, they may tell others about their concerns (even when they are minor.) This negative word-of-mouth can influence others, and potentially reach professional referral sources as well.
  • Possible loss to the competition. Patients that are strongly bonded to you tend to ignore competitive marketing messages.
  • Lost acquisition investment. Attracting patients typically requires an initial marketing investment. When they leave the long-term value of that patient is cut short.
  • Replacement costs are higher than retention costs. It is far more costly to attract a (replacement) patient -- anywhere from 4 to 100 times more expensive.

Patient satisfaction. Patient retention.
Most patients are not medically trained and have little or no clinical basis to evaluate a professional on the quality of care. Their value system is highly personal. It’s how they felt about it all–the total "patient experience."

Clearly high quality medical care comes first, but cultivating a positive and caring personal relationship with patients is also critical. It is good business sense to build, preserve and protect against the loss of patients. It can be relatively easy and inexpensive to keep satisfaction high. A patient satisfaction survey can reveal important issues for resolution or training.

1) Rockefeller Corporation survey; published in US News and World Report and elsewhere.

© Copyright Healthcare Success Strategies, Inc. Published with permission from the authors.

About the authors: 
Lonnie Hirsch and Stewart Gandolf, MBA, are two of America’s most experienced healthcare marketers. They have a combined 30 years experience, have written hundreds of articles and have consulted with over 3,500 healthcare clients, including medical groups, hospitals, doctors and corporations. Additionally, Lonnie and Stewart have spoken at hundreds of venues across North America to tens of thousands of healthcare executives and doctors. As co-founders of Healthcare Success Strategies, they lead a team of over 40 Healthcare Marketing All-Stars. You may reach either of them directly by calling 800-656-0907, through their website at or via email at .