Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, describes how early 20th-century advertising executive Claude C. Hopkins helped create the foamy, tingly, minty paste we know today. By creating a “habit loop”, Hopkins turned a nation of Victorian-era dirty-toothed miscreants into pearly white sophisticates, repeatedly craving that “Pepsodent smile.”

Duhigg asserts that “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react.” Here at YellowTelescope, we’ve been teaching for years and years that a successful medical practice must first start with replicable processes that, once repeated over and over, will eventually become a habit. Over time, those habits become part of the culture of the practice, and, as a management consultant, Peter Drucker purportedly said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

In no other way is this concept more salient in a medical practice than in patient communication. How you communicate with your patients, how often, and how that communication is recorded can have a tremendous impact not only on the reviews of your practice, but on the sheer volume of patients who select you for treatment. Read on to learn how to transform your current processes into habits that yield demonstrable improvements in patient care and volume.

What communication process?

Think about your current patient communication process, or lack thereof. In so many practices, large and small, most staff members contribute to communicating with patients in some capacity, often in a piecemeal fashion. Someone answers a call, greets a patient, brings the patient to an exam or consultation room, sees the patient, walks the patient out, and follows up with the patient (hopefully). Who is doing what varies from practice to practice, and from person to person within a practice? Often it is “all hands on deck” — whoever can get to the patient at that exact moment helps out. Other times it is more compartmentalized — the receptionist answers the phone, a nurse brings the patient back to a room, the doctor sees the patient, reception checks the patient out, and so on. How compartmentalized is the process in your practice?

Now think about how well you are tracking this communication. Too often, members of a busy office staff just keep moving from patient to patient, never stopping to jot down any notes on what happened. Patient care coordinators speak with patients in person, over the phone, and via email, never notating anything in their system. Should they? We would argue, unequivocally, yes, for two reasons.

First, having all communication with each patient recorded reduces liability and holds each patient, as well as each staff member, accountable. If everything is recorded in a patient’s file, the patient (who, we know, can be susceptible to memory loss) can never say you never told them something. Further, a staff member can never say they contacted a patient or told the patient something if it isn’t recorded.

Second, having everything recorded in a patient’s file means we don’t have to remember that information, freeing up our limited mental bandwidth to think about other things, increasing the capacity of patients we can assist.

If our focus is new patient conversion, communication should be the most compartmentalized with the Patient Care Coordinator (PCC). The PCC should be the one to take an initial patient inquiry, see a new patient in consultation along with the doctor, then be the one to follow up with patients to help them get scheduled for their procedure (if the patient hasn’t booked “on the spot”, like most patients in YellowTelescope long-term practices do).

The PCC should also be following up with patients to gather testimonials and referrals, repeatedly reach out to prospects who haven’t replied to initial inquiry responses to increase lead conversion, remind patients who need repeat treatments (like injectables) to come back, and more. What habit loops can we create to make these processes nearly mindless to maximize efficiency, and therefore volume, while maintaining a high quality of communication?

Hijacking Your Brain with Habit Loops

The “loop” is made of three parts — the (1) “cue” which creates the desire to achieve the (2) “reward” by way of a (3) “routine.” Think about our toothpaste example.

The cue, in this case, is the filmy feeling, like a furry sock over each tooth (appealing, we know); the routine is the act of brushing your teeth; and the reward is that tingly, minty-clean feeling afterward. The mint and tingle were designed by Claude C. Hopkins simply to act as a reward – the same reason that shampoo is foamy and air fresheners have a scent (how else would you know they are working?). We humans apparently need the reward to get anything done. You’ve essentially been duped by clever advertising that takes advantage of this neurological quirk to create healthy habits. Knowing that, you can dupe yourself into forming better habits for yourself.

As a PCC, you first need to be recording every patient interaction. So, what’s the loop?

•  Cue: Saying goodbye to a patient. For example, after a patient has met with the PCC, met with the doctor, scheduled a procedure, and completed an excellent visit to the office, as soon as the PCC says goodbye, (BOOM!) it should immediately trigger the need to complete their follow up routine.

•  Routine: The PCC immediately returns to the patient file to complete notes on exactly what occurred and make sure a follow-up task is scheduled at the appropriate time.

•  Reward: The reward is a task completed, and the ability to move on to the next task without having to think about that patient at all until their scheduled follow up task becomes due and the PCC is reminded to contact them again (perhaps celebrating with an audible, jovial exclamation of “To Do!” shouted across the office as you mentally check off the task, as we often do at YTHQ).

Once this becomes habit, and every patient has thorough, complete notes and a follow-up task, it must become a habit to get those tasks completed. So, what’s the loop?

•  Cue: Finishing email.

•  First, the PCC should be following the Hierarchy of Communication:

1) See live patients

2) Take incoming patient phone calls

3) Return patient phone messages

4) Reply to all email

5) Complete patient follow up tasks

•  As soon as a PCC finishes replying to email, (BOOM!) it is the cue to start clicking down the follow-up list

•  Routine: check each patient’s notes section to read what happened at the last interaction, which will indicate what happens this time. If the patient left their consultation needing to check their schedule for the best time to have a procedure and the PCC said they would call them for an update, the PCC needs to pick up the phone and dial.

•  As soon as the PCC says goodbye (BOOM!) their existing habit loop cues them to record notes and reschedule the follow-up task to try to next appropriate time

•  Reward: The PCC is again rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and glee completing the task, able to move on to the next task without having to think about the patient until reminded.

This replicable process can be repeated, over and over again. With time, repetition creates a habit that is as automatic as brushing the film off your teeth. A PCC that masters these habit loops — ordinary processes performed so fast they don’t even have to think — will be able to follow up with more patients, more accurately, increasing conversion, becoming a champion able to flash a Pepsodent smile that would make Claude C. Hopkins proud.