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Image Makeover

July 1, 2010
by Eve M. Stern, RN, MS
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Seven tips to elevate long-term care's professional image

The long-term care field continues to wrestle with public image challenges that act as barriers to older Americans who are considering moving into an assisted living community or nursing home. Consumer research shows that people would rather age in place at home than receive care in a nursing home.

According to a 2010 study by Dr. Stephen Holland, medical director for Univita Health, “Individuals with long-term care insurance who became ADL-dependent or had a cognitive impairment requiring substantial supervision, revealed that the vast majority of individuals and their families chose care at home or care within an assisted living community. Less than 12% of those significantly impaired chose a nursing home setting for care.” Although there may be many reasons for their decisions, public perception of nursing homes is a strong influential factor when consumers make housing/care choices.

“If we, as a profession, want to earn the continuous respect of others, we must raise the bar and strive for continuous improvement.”

Quality of life

Recent healthcare reform legislation, such as the CLASS Act, ultimately encourages greater usage of home care services and other residential options. Despite strides made to make facilities less institutional and more resident-centered in their cultures, many consumers continue to think of long-term care as a “step before heaven” rather than an inviting destination that could help improve their quality of life. There are, however, everyday actions that can and should be taken in our communities to help reverse these perceptions and improve the professional image of our field.

Consider implementing the following seven tips:

1.Invest in quality customer service training for your receptionist.

When consumers, or their professional advocates, are shopping for long-term care alternatives, the interaction will almost always include several phone calls to the community. Have you called your facility lately to hear firsthand what that experience is like? You may be surprised by what you learn. If the first impression is unfavorable, this can add to the stress of the family member who is uncertain to begin with. By being your own mystery shopper and calling your community several times during the week, both day and night, and on the weekends, one can find out how the staff handles inquiries on different days and shifts. Rate your call experience as if you were the housing seeker and ask yourself if these findings are acceptable. How many rings does it take for the call to be answered? Less than three? Three to five rings? More than five? Does the person answering the phone sound upbeat and welcoming? Is their tone negative and passionless? Are they accurate but lack enthusiasm? Do they exude a positive attitude? Can you feel their smile through the phone? Is the call handled appropriately? Are your questions answered accurately and efficiently? Were you put on hold for a long time? If your call is transferred, is it successfully routed? Are your expectations for the call met?

The caller's first impression of a long-term care facility will likely be the interaction with the receptionist. If he or she reads from a script in a listless robotic tone, the family might be less likely to proceed with a tour. Consider call tracking and taping for a period of time. Find examples of excellent interactions, and interactions that warrant improvement. Try role playing how less-than-perfect calls could be converted into a positive experience with different outcomes. Role play various case studies of family members with different scenarios to train staff to handle complaints or concerns with compassion and sensitivity. Is your front line staff empowered to handle disgruntled callers? Do they know when, how, and to whom to escalate an irate caller?

Hiring the right person with the right attitude for the job is the key to the high-quality performance needed for the receptionist position. Screening receptionist candidates for the right personality fit upfront can predispose the success of the caller's experience with your community.

2.Professional networking.

Work and personal demands often leave little time for professional networking with industry peers, much less connecting with business executives outside our profession. By getting involved with local professional community groups (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, nonprofit organizations, etc.), you can educate influential people in your communities about long-term care. Participation in these groups will provide social opportunities to present long-term care administrators as equal professionals committed to doing “good” in their respective communities.

3.Solicit feedback from families.

Families are often reluctant to speak out or complain about a service issue, or specific staff situation, in fear of retribution. To gain insight into quality improvements, start with securing direct intelligence from your target market. Consider putting a suggestion box at the front reception desk to gather anonymous recommendations or complaints. Try mailing out satisfaction surveys via e-mail or direct mail to garner quantifiable data on all aspects of your service. When a prospective family tours your community and selects another competitor, consider sending a survey to inquire why they didn't choose your community. Consider offering an incentive (e.g., $5.00 gift certificate for a local merchant) to optimize completion of as many surveys as possible to obtain a statistically significant sampling of your population.

4.Monitor your online presence.