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Satisfying three customers with every test.

Imagine yourself the owner of a restaurant. Three customers enter and sit at the same table. The first orders a few select items from your menu while the others sit passively. When the food is served, the second does all the eating, and the others look on. When it's time to pay the bill, customers one and two announce that customer three will review the tab and pay whatever he thinks is reasonable, regardless of your menu prices. Sound crazy? Welcome to the world of health care financing.

Under prospective payment, many hospitals are exploring for the first time what used to be an almost taboo area--the marketing of health care services. Historically, hospitals shunned this activity, for obvious reasons. They had a virtually captive market, and the commercial promotion of medical services was considered unprofessional at best. Times have changed fast. Health care administrators are hitting the marketing books, investigating opportunities, and coming up with innovative ways to attract new customers.

One of the first tasks in any marketing program is to identify your potential customers and pin-point which of their needs your product will satisfy. This is relatively easy when selling detergent or automobiles, but in health care, it's considerably more complex.

The lab, like the restaurant just described, must deal with three customers at once. The first is the physician who orders the test; the second, the patient who supplies the specimen and receives treatment based upon lab results; and the third, while not often considered in this context, is the insurance carrier who pays the bill.

Past practices have centered attention on customer one, the physician. For years we emphasized the provision of ever more sophisticated testing. Batteries of tests with fast turnaround times were developed to assist in making an accurate, timely diagnosis, with little concern for costs or patient convenience.

Now the pendulum has swung toward satisfying the needs of customer three, the third-party payer. This party, whether government program or private employer, is grim about the ravages of health care costs on the national debt--and on bottom lines. Insurers will no longer willingly pay charges or even costs for their enrollees' care. Instead, they're setting maximum hospitalization payment rates and shopping around for the best deals.

What about the poor guy in the middle, who actually consumes our services? For years, patients accepted physician decisions unquestioningly throughout their course of treatment, but no more. In this era of competition for inpatient and outpatient clients, the health care consumer has become a valuable commodity to be actively recruited. Patients will no longer accept whatever hospital their doctor recommends; they'll speak up for one located closer to home, or one equipped with the niceties they demand. Prospective payment has made the competition for outpatients especially acute. Clinics and labs are cropping up in consumer-friendly spots. Many new medical technologies will someday find themselves working in shopping mall labs or other easy-access locales. Even house calls may stage a comeback.

Our customer the physician expects high quality results in the least time possible. Technological advances over the last few decades have been geared to satisfying this goal, and we will continue trying to meet it.

The patient as customer also wants fast, accurate results--but at the right time and place for his or her life-style. Satisfying this need may be easier than we anticipate. Lab scheduling adjustments could go a long way toward maintaining good consumer relations.

Finally, we must meet the demands of our bill-paying customers to obtain service at the lowest cost available. Here is the real challenge; trying to hold down costs after years of spiraling inflation, and trying to change the long-held attitude that more lab services are necessarily better.

These goals may be different, but they are not mutually exclusive. As we work to maintain and improve our level of service, we should be able to attract and hold onto our valued customers--the whole varied lot of them.
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Author:Maratea, James A.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:column
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Previous Article:New data: how labs help hospitals weather DRGs.
Next Article:New era begins as HCFA implements lab fee schedule.

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