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Holiday Airline Troubles Are Reminiscent Of Health Care Experiences

One of the hot phrases in health care these days is “patient-centered,” as in “patient-centered hospitals,” “patient-centered practices,” and “patient-centered medicine.” For all of you out there working on creating such “patient-centered” systems, let me provide a bit of advice based on a recent experience my family and I had with Delta Airlines. For if you substitute the word “customer” for “patient,” you get what every business, whether in health care or not, should be focused on — the person receiving, nay, purchasing, their services. The ones you hope will return, again and again.

I’m actually writing this as I sit in the lobby of a hotel in Park City, Utah. It is a gorgeous day outside, crisp and cold, just perfect for the skiing my family had in mind when we booked this trip; it’s a short trip– just 3 days on the slopes before we head home — so every minute counts. Unfortunately, despite plenty of time sitting in airports yesterday (i.e., no tight connection), only 2 out of our 6 pieces of luggage made it here. Fortunately, one of those was the suitcase filled with skiing togs. Unfortunately, one of the missing pieces was my son’s new snowboard, also filled with all of his ski togs. So while my boys are out on the slopes (the snowboard kid wearing my ski clothes), I’m sitting in the lodge awaiting our luggage. It is nearly noon — half of the day gone, one-sixth, possibly one-third, of our vacation gone–and I have not yet set foot on the slopes. Sure, I could head over and buy all-new ski stuff. . . . but that isn’t the point.

The point is how this was handled. I do understand that these things happen. And Delta did send the luggage out on the first flight this morning (hopefully it will arrive before dark). But other than a “comfort pack” with little ketchup-type packages of toothpaste and a t-shirt with the Delta logo emblazoned it, there was nothing else. No sincere apology. When I asked about refunds on the $100 those bags cost us to check, we were told to check the online site. Turns out that if it takes them more than 12 hours to get our bags to us, we get $25 vouchers for future travel — but not, it seems, for the “oversized” luggage, the snowboard.

When I tweeted customer service at Delta about the same thing, I got the same offer.

Now, if I were running a customer service department, particularly one for an airline that has enraged passengers everywhere with exhorbitant fees for checked luggage (hard to travel without a suitcase, people, and you’re in the travel industry) here’s what I would have done.

I would have immediately refunded the customer the amount spent to check those bags and provided vouchers for free bag checking on the return flight. That would be in addition to a very sincere apology and some sense of empathy. That’s all. It would have cost them $200. And they would have had a very loyal customer for life.

Because you know, stuff happens. It happens in airlines, in doctor’s offices, in hospitals. No one, no system, is perfect. But, as numerous studies on malpractice have shown, when doctors simply apologize and work to rectify the situation, patients are far less likely to sue. Heck, when doctors have worked to develop good relationships and partnerships with patients they are far less likely to sue.

Airlines– all other service-oriented businesses, actually–need to learn that lesson.

We don’t want to make money off mistakes. We don’t want to sue you. We just want what’s fair. And we want it delivered by real people who are trained to understand how someone might feel when they’ve been traveling for 10 hours, it’s 3 a.m., according to their body clock, and the luggage for a long-planned and quite-expensive vacation is lost.

So next time you’re double booked and a patient complains that they lost 3 hours of work time because you were late, don’t come up with excuses. Just apologize! And waive the copayment. Oh, and figure out what’s wrong with your scheduling system. Because if the system is supposed to be built around the patient, not the doctor or hospital or administrator, then you need to find out what is important to the patient. And I’ll just bet sitting in your waiting room reading bad magazines for 3 hours is not one of them.

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine, Health Care, and the Writing Life*

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