SINGAPORE - Polyclinics have been quietly transforming from the inside out - by getting their staff to learn how to care for patients better.
In the past year, SingHealth Polyclinics and National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP), have sent employees on new courses to help them empathise and interact better with patients.
Thanks to this, Bukit Batok Polyclinic health attendant Jenny Tan, 56, said she views patients less as "a face in the crowd" but more as a person with needs.
This measure, together with physical revamps such as larger waiting areas and improved appointment booking facilities, helped the polyclinics score a marked improvement of 7.2 per cent in the latest Customer Satisfaction Index.
Polyclinics were singled out as a segment that fared much better in meeting patients' expectations, compared to the previous year.
The Index, which was released last week, also found that touchpoints such as easier registration, and factors such as empathy of staff, contributed significantly to patients' perception of quality.
SingHealth and NHGP run nine polyclinics each.
Mr Peter Chow, who heads NHGP's corporate development, said that in 2011, the management realised a need to "fundamentally revisit" the way the organisation works and thinks in order to "rise to the next level of performance".
"As a public service provider that is often faced with demands and rising expectations, it is not easy to constantly meet these challenges by physical improvements alone," he said.
In late 2011, NHGP rolled out a programme to "rewire" and "reframe" how staff can provide better service. Key features included workshops to teach staff how to deal with challenging situations and share inspiring stories to create a more caring culture.
SingHealth also started a training programme last April in which staff can learn how to identify a patient's emotional state better, among other things. About half of its employees have attended these courses, ranging from patient service associates to pharmacists and nurses. The rest will follow by the end of this year.
Senior staff nurse Foo Mei Ching, 42, of Sengkang Polyclinic, who went for one such course, said she can now better anticipate what a patient needs. For example, recent renovations at the polyclinic saw registration counters moved to another location in the building, leaving some patients unsure about where to go.
Ms Foo now tries to be more observant and takes the initiative to approach those who look confused so she can escort them.
"If any of my loved ones are sick, I would also hope to have a smooth and hassle-free experience at the polyclinic," she said.
Bukit Batok Polyclinic's Ms Tan said the courses helped to defuse the frustration she experienced while manning the reception counter where patients can sometimes be rude and demanding.
The more perceptive mindset has also led to changes in the physical facilities and workflow.
SingHealth renovated the waiting area at the pharmacy of its Bukit Merah Polyclinic to make it more spacious.
It also rolled out a new type of self-service kiosk last year to allow patients to select follow-up appointment dates.
"Patients can reduce waiting time from 15 minutes to five minutes when using this kiosk, instead of queuing up at the counter," said Ms Janet Lau, SingHealth's assistant director of strategic planning and communications.
Meanwhile, NHGP introduced wound management clinics at its Yishun and Hougang polyclinics last year, so that patients who have to get bandages changed need not go to hospital.
More appointment slots have been opened up at its laboratories so patients who need blood tests and other investigations do not have to wait as long.
Last October, NHGP also made its appointment system easier.
Patients can call in to get a queue number to see a doctor on the very day itself.
"They no longer need to walk in and wait at the clinics - they just have to show up nearer to the estimated time given to them," explained Mr Chow.
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