Image Makeover

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.

Potential residents and their caregivers are increasingly using the Internet to search for ways to help themselves. It’s one of the easiest and quickest ways to get your information to the public. The Pew Research Center completed a study in 2007 finding that, “Fully 86% of Internet users living with disability or chronic illness have looked online for information about at least one of 17 health topics, compared with 79% of Internet users with no chronic conditions.” (“E-patients with a Disability or Chronic Disease,” 2007). Long-term care communities need to take a more proactive stance to manage their online reputation. If you want your community to be seen in a professional light, review and update information about your community and neighboring communities online. Perform searches as if you were a consumer and note what you like and what you don’t like about the available information with respect to your community and others.

Is your Web site professional and does it appear near the top of a set of search results when searching for services you provide in your geographic area? Do you know what is being said about your community on forums, blogs, and commercial rating Web sites such as Angie’s List, AARP, and Yelp?

It is advisable to review your community profiles on online senior housing directories to ensure the descriptive information accurately reflects your service capabilities and highlights the features that make your community stand out from the competition. You should also consider engaging a professional photographer since listings with photos and virtual tours are viewed considerably more often than those that don’t have an interactive user experience. Correct spelling and grammar within the summary text is a sign of professionalism and a consumer may be dissuaded from choosing your community if alternatives are available.

Assigning a dedicated staff person or consultant to monitor your online reputation is worthwhile. Start your own community groups on high-traffic Web sites, or join existing groups to seed meaningful content. Encourage families to post positive comments on these major referral sites about your service. This will be beneficial to offset any potential negative commentary that can follow. Depending on the rating methodology on different Web sites, having more reviews will give consumers a more balanced perspective of your community.

5.Give your community a facelift.

Many communities are dated with old décor and only reinforce the stereotypes that the general public has about long-term care settings. Invite a friend to come unannounced into your facility and have them tour. Ask them to give you honest input about their perceptions. Upon entering the building, did it feel inviting? How did staff acknowledge the guest during the tour? What did your guest observe? Could residents personalize their space? Was your lobby impressive? As long-term care providers want to attract private-pay residents, having an appealing look and feel with updated design can make a difference.

6.Dress for success.

Dressing professionally may seem to go without saying, but if our field is going to elevate its standing in the community, this point needs to be reinforced. Knowing that our target audience is older Americans with generational values, we need to be sensitive to their perceptions. Does your facility have a dress code? Is it enforced? Does the marketing and community relations staff have clear expectations to wear professional attire? Our culture has become more lax on dress code; articulating work dress expectations to all personnel including personal hygiene, grooming, and appropriate-looking clothing (err on the side of conservatism), can only enhance our professional image to a broader set of consumers.

7.Encourage continuing education.

If we, as a profession, want to earn the continuous respect of others, we must raise the bar and strive for continuous improvement. One way to do this is to create an environment that encourages continuing education for all levels of personnel. Does your lunchroom have professional journals readily available? Do you support and encourage your staff to attend educational seminars/Webinars? Do you give paid time off for off-site education? Invite local vendors to deliver educational programs on their products and services. They may even be willing to pay for your staff’s lunch.

Do you publicly recognize and reward those staff that commit and achieve higher credentials, degrees, and certifications within their specialty areas? As the demand for long-term care grows, this type of corporate commitment could be a competitive advantage among preferred provider networks being developed by regional and national employers and insurance companies.

Know your community and, more importantly, know what others are saying about it; invest in your staff as far as training and continuing education; portray a professional environment, inside and outside of the facility. Using the tips described above as guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to breaking down the barriers and improving your community’s image.

Eve Stern, RN, MS, is co-CEO of SNAPforSeniors®, a leading data and technology company that manages the largest national database of senior housing and local community resources for older Americans in the United States. She has been a serial entrepreneur for the last 30 years in the healthcare field having built multiple successful national companies. Ms. Stern is a board member of the National Family Caregivers Association, frequent speaker at national conferences, and a published author of numerous articles on healthcare technology tools and caregiving issues.

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Long-Term Living 2010 July;59(7):26-30

Topics: Articles