Good Patient Care Begins With the First Phone Call

Cleveland Francis, Jr., MD


December 16, 2021

I have always felt privileged to be a part of the healthcare profession and grateful for the trust my patients place in me. In turn, I work to honor this trust by providing the highest-quality care. Health issues can bring stress and I feel it is important to have an office environment where, in addition to the best clinical care, our patients are treated with courtesy, patience, and respect.

My patients and friends have told me, however, that being on the other side of the receptionist desk or the examination table, or on the other end of the phone waiting for a response from the doctor's office staff, is not always pleasant.

I know that there are many reasons for poor service. Pent-up demand from those who deferred treatment during the pandemic, coupled with resignations of many seeking less stressful and better-paying jobs, has created a perfect storm that makes it difficult for healthcare systems and practice offices to be welcoming. The staff has too much to do, and it is difficult to take the time to accommodate individual requests and needs. While I understand all of that, it doesn't make a wait or rudeness less annoying.

In pursuit of efficiency, incoming calls are handled by call centers with complicated phone trees that, contrary to the intent, can be an enormous source of frustration. Online communication systems are broadly available but difficult to access and navigate for some of our sickest patients who need the communication most.

Healthcare systems understandably prioritize clinical training and may not spend the time to train staff in communication skills, but good communication is a vital component of patient care. It should not be seen as optional or a nice add-on. This is particularly important since the patient population in most areas is multicultural, multilingual, and economically and educationally diverse. Health issues and concerns that cannot be effectively communicated, cannot be appropriately addressed.

In some cases, a minor change may be all that is needed to improve service. For example, if the doctor is running late, a simple announcement to those in the waiting room apologizing for the delay can go a long way toward mitigating annoyance. Other situations, such as dealing with angry patients, require more in-depth training in de-escalation and communication skills.

Our healthcare systems spend hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing in talented physicians. Why not devote the resources necessary to assure that our patients are treated respectfully, like the valued "customers" they are? Treating patients with dignity is the right thing to do and training is an excellent investment because patient experience factors into national hospital rankings.

Patient care involves a team of people: schedulers, receptionists, nurses, APPs, and physicians, and each person is responsible for making the encounter a positive experience. Points of friction can happen anywhere along the line and should be individually addressed. Doctors, technicians, and front-desk personnel should be required to receive communication training, and performance should be monitored.

Many of the less-than-ideal encounters our patients have with our offices and healthcare systems can be improved by identifying the friction points and taking steps to address them. I am very proud of the overall patient experience scores for our institution, and am particularly proud that we monitor this regularly. If a breakdown in service occurs, we take immediate steps to identify the root cause and implement remedies.

Let's ensure that workers from physician to front desk are well trained in this important nonclinical area and do all we can to treat our patients with the respect they deserve.


The views expressed by the author are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Inova Health System.


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About Dr Cleve Francis
Cleve Francis, MD, is a staff cardiologist with the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute (IHVI) in Northern Virginia. He is former president and founder of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, co-chairman of the IHVI Antiracism/Equality Taskforce, diversity advisor of IHVI, and a member of the Inova Inclusion Counsel.

Dr Francis is also a songwriter and performer. He is a former recording artist on the Capitol Nashville Country Music Label (1992-1995), and his music has been featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Connect with him:
Twitter: @muzicdoc2
Facebook: Cleve Francis
Instagram: @muzidoc


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