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Expecting new competition, Cook County health officials focus on customer service

Friday, March 26, 2010
by Alex Parker

Lee Kidd is 56 years old and HIV positive. And he’s fed up with the kind of customer service he receives at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.

Kidd addressed health system leaders today at Stroger Hospital, complaining about wasting three hours trying to get his wisdom teeth pulled, only to find out the procedure wasn’t offered at the time for which his operation was scheduled.

But patients like Kidd may be heartened to know that customer service is very much on the minds of the county health system’s leaders.

With the national health care bill ushering in an era of more competition, health board leaders today expressed concerns about “systemic” problems in how employees respond to patients.

“We have to have the patient in the forefront, and I think this bill will enforce that in very short order,” said health board chairman Warren Batts.

With legions of uninsured people gaining access to health insurance, health board leaders know that the oft-maligned county health care system will be competing with other hospitals for patients that traditionally have turned to the county – and nowhere else.

CEO William Foley and his colleagues see big changes – and opportunities – ahead, in the wake of the sweeping changes approved this week by Congress. In 2014, millions of people will gain access to insurance, and officials at the health system foresee the opportunity to double its revenue.

But that depends on if people want to use the county’s health care system.

“Patients have a choice,” Foley said. “We need to position ourselves so they choose us.”

Customer service, long waiting times and employee attitudes have long been gripes of county patients, and system leaders acknowledge that if that perception doesn’t change, trouble is in store.

“If we can’t improve the quality and accessibility of what we do, the fact that we get better paid, will not matter because the patient will not care that we get better paid,” said health board member Benn Greenspan.

But to improve the patient experience, employees at Provident Hospital – which patients recommend to others less than half the time – are undergoing customer service training. Employees are cheering the four-hour sessions, said interim Chief Operating Officer Tony Tedeschi.

“They feel like we’re really giving them the educational piece that they need,” he said.

In addition to employee training, the health system is gearing up for its strategic plan, a document long in the making that will outline huge transformations in health care delivery.

At the heart of it is a series of comprehensive inpatient centers throughout the county, which Foley says will increase access to care. To that end, the new health care reform measures are in line with the county’s expected changes, said John Abendschien, a consultant assisting in drawing up the plan.

“The thrust of health reform would suggest that the vision and strategic direction that the county has embraced is not only relevant, but I would say it gives us the great impetus in … moving forward.”

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