How AI and Soft Skills Will Shape the Patient Experience

Artificial intelligence (AI) may seem far away, but it’s already having a major impact on the jobs that provide workers with the soft skills so necessary in customer service (aka the patient experience). Healthcare has witnessed a large-scale shift in communication preferences, and interpersonal and communication skills are in demand now more than ever.

AI and automation are reshaping entry-level jobs in the global economy, and medical practices are not exempt. Healthcare organizations need to have plans in place to develop soft skills among their employees (and physicians). By 2030, 14.7 million workers under 30 will face job displacement, especially in the service and food industries. Understanding how this shift will impact your hospital or medical practice is critical to long-term success.

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The Impact of Artificial Intelligence

AI (and automation) have firmly taken root in the healthcare ecosystem as they support improved clinical outcomes and optimal administrative and financial decision-making. The potential for AI’s role in improving the patient experience is driving innovation, allowing healthcare organizations and research facilities to develop leading-edge ways to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the industry. 

Providers and administrators can now access actionable insights culled from natural language processing (NLP), deep learning, neural networks, and other advanced machine learning methods. Market research reports estimate that AI in healthcare will be worth $6.6 billion by 2021 and over $36 billion by 2025. And according to Accenture, when combined, the top AI applications may result in $150 billion in annual savings for the U.S. healthcare economy by 2026.

AI isn’t only transforming how healthcare practitioners make decisions. It’s also fundamentally altering how patients interact with their caregivers, shifting a typically passive relationship into an active opportunity to make informed choices about how they seek out care.

The massive shift now underway has tremendous implications for patient care. However, healthcare organizations need to tread carefully and have the right strategy in place where their employees and the overall patient experience is concerned. With healthcare consumers having more choice than ever and being empowered to act on it, delivering first-class patient experience will become that much more critical to attracting and retaining patients.

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Soft Skills in Peril

Anyone who has ever worked at Chili’s or Taco Bell knows that many of those positions have historically served as first entry points into the working world for many young people. It’s how many young workers developed soft skills—attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.

However, those jobs are disappearing fast, depriving young people of gaining those soft skills so critical to understanding the basics of customer service such as patience, empathy, how to communicate and solve problems. Moreover, 39% of employers say a skills shortage is the leading reason for entry-level vacancies. Bottom line: healthcare organizations need to start looking for new ways to help develop soft skills among their teams.

Soft skills are essential to perform successfully in an interpersonal setting. These qualities apply particularly in healthcare, where providers and staff interact closely and intimately with patients and teams, often in highly stressful and emotional situations.

The McKinsey Global Institute recommends that businesses begin looking at apprenticeships and investing in new hires by teaching them higher-level soft skills from day one. Providing job retraining and enabling individuals to learn marketable new skills throughout their lifetimes will also be key for medical practices who want to achieve longevity.

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Ongoing Training Is Critical

The healthcare industry now faces a shortage of qualified job applicants with the required soft skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare occupations are forecasted to grow by 19% through 2024, primarily due to an aging population and increased access to healthcare insurance. Additionally, healthcare administration is expected to grow at almost triple the average rate of all U.S. professions.

Soft skills, such as communication ability, teamwork, adaptability, empathy, and time management, are essential to collaborate with colleagues effectively and successfully interact with patients. These skills are now primary recruitment criteria for many healthcare positions, especially as patients demand higher levels of service.

Increasingly, medical practices have begun to establish partnerships with healthcare-focused training organizations to develop the skills needed in their workforce and to provide ongoing solutions to engage, educate, and empower their teams. This enables large-scale retraining and development without creating the staff and overhead to manage it internally. 

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Soft Skills Impact Reputation Management

Soft skills relate directly to online reviews and reputation management. For example, a typical patient complaint seen online is rudeness, be it from a staff member or a physician. And disrespect (or the perception thereof) often stems from a generational gap in communication between healthcare providers, staff, and patients. Not only do your physicians and employees need soft skills, but they also need to understand that communication tactics vary across different generations.

For example, a younger doctor may be labeled as rude because s/he does not look a patient in the eye, or prefers to text instead of talking. Younger generations no longer want or need to have face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) interaction. However, many older patients still seek out genuine person to person communication. Therefore, physicians and staff need to understand the communication needs of intergenerational patients and act accordingly.

Also, if someone calls and needs directions to your office for an appointment, the answer you give may be quite different if the patient is 25-years-old (and uses Google to figure it out) or if they are 75-years-old and may need a bit more hand-holding. If you tell an 80-year-old to “Google it,” you may find yourself on the short end of a 2-star review. The generational differences affect not only the way you train your employees in-house but also how you train your employees to handle generational differences with the patients coming to your practice.

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The Key to Avoiding 1-Star Reviews

The key to avoiding low-star reviews is to focus on getting to the root of the problem.  Differences in communication styles can impact critical patient-employee interactions, not to mention back-office challenges amongst employees. Understanding the differences between intergenerational patients and employees will allow you to focus on the cause of negative reviews. 

As technology evolves, AI will no doubt have a tremendous impact on patient care, hospital management, and health outcomes. However, the human factor will continue to be a primary driver where patient experience is concerned.

You can’t make all people happy all of the time, but there are ways to prevent negative reviews from cropping up in the first place. The solution lies in understanding the overall patient experience. Your patients’ overall perceived experience often has less to do with the doctor, and more to do with your employees who often have more interaction with your patients than the physician.

Everyone at your practice from the physicians to billing and records, to the front desk and the call center plays a pivotal role in delivering a positive patient experience. Training your staff on the critical role they play in patient customer service will get your entire team on the same page, and have everyone pulling in the same direction.

Any other solution will only serve as a temporary band-aid to the problem. When you invest in your employees and make sure they understand the integral part they play in the reputation of your medical practice, you’ll soon see those 1- and 2-star reviews fade away. Moreover, you’ll positively impact every aspect of your practice from employee hiring and retention, to patient satisfaction and the bottom line.

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Jennifer Thompson serves as President at Insight Marketing Group. She founded the medical marketing company in 2006 after an unsuccessful run for political office (which she went on to win in 2010 & 2014). Jennifer has two decades experience in marketing in the areas of technology, retail and medical for small businesses and Fortune 100 companies. She’s a serial entrepreneur who wakes up every day at 4 am ready to change the world. When it’s time to recharge, Jennifer enjoys being on the water and dreaming up her next big idea.

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