Fast Food Nation: When Customer Service Competes with Patient Safety

by jparadisi

Drive-Thru Health Care by jparadisi

Calculating chemotherapy doses by surface area (m2) or kilograms was a smooth transition for me, a former pediatric intensive care nurse. In pediatrics, every medication, even acetaminophen, is dosed by weight. Tailoring chemotherapy doses to a patient’s weight was already a familiar concept; likewise dose reduction or withholding treatment altogether based on the patient’s lab values and assessment.

It’s a rare patient, however, who understands that her chemotherapy is prepared to order, not mixed ahead of time and awaiting her arrival, as if it’s fast-food made for the masses, preserved under a warming lamp.

This doesn’t matter as much if the patient receives his or her care in the hospital, but sometimes it creates unrealistic expectations in ambulatory oncology clinics. Somewhere along the line, good customer service has become confused with fast service, resulting in more and more patients with unrealistic expectations for their appointments.

It was one of those shifts when appointments backed up. Several factors contributed: Harsh weather conditions meant some patients arrived either late or too early for their appointments. The rapidly approaching holidays caused schedule changes for some patients. Of course, there were the normal, garden-variety delays: lab values requiring attention and patient veins that refused to accommodate IV catheters, etc.

Throughout the shift patients asked, “What’s the holdup?” Each time I thanked them for their patience, and validated the importance of their time. All shift long I explained, “One of the difficulties is that administering chemotherapy is not like making fast-food. Each treatment is made to order, measured against your lab values and tolerance. Our most important service is guarding your safety.” The explanation was received well, refocusing expectations on patient safety. Patients expressed appreciation for their nurses, oncologists, and pharmacists watching out for them.

The shift reminded me of a statement made by my husband, “Health care is neither inexpensive nor convenient,” and another one I heard a celebrity say on TV, “There’s never enough time to do things right the first time, but there always seems to be time to fix the mistakes later.”

Delivering prompt care is part of customer service, and as nurses, we should endeavor to keep appointments on schedule. However, our most important responsibility is patient safety.

How do you help patients keep their expectations regarding their care realistic?