Ross University Blog

DEAN’S VIEWPOINT: What’s the Physician/Customer Service Connection?

December 09, 2014

Ross University Dean Joseph A. Flaherty

By Joseph A. Flaherty, MD
Dean and Chancellor, Ross University School of Medicine

Parents of children who have an interest in pursuing a medical career have often asked me what their sons and daughters should do over the summer breaks in high school and college to help them prepare. Believe it or not, I tell them to have their kids work in a retail store, restaurant or grocery store, or in any type of job that requires customer understanding and service. I would encourage young people to do this type of work because of the valuable people skills it provides. You meet all kinds of people. Sometimes they’re ornery or antagonistic. Some are lonely and want to tell you their life story. If you’re a waiter, you have to get that order right. Patrons may give you kudos or be very angry; this is where you’re honing your skills in people-reading. Doctors need to be good at reading people and responding well, no matter how the patient behaves.

Words of Wisdom from “Big Al” 

There is an element of customer service and pragmatism that has long been a guiding principle and dynamic in my life. When I was a youngster I worked in a grocery store after school and I delivered groceries in a station wagon. Big Al, the store owner, used to say to me, “Don’t let those talkative older people hold you too long.” I had to learn how to be friendly, to chat for a while, but to keep moving, so I could get to my next customer. In a hospital, residents may see 40 patients in a day. They have to keep moving, yet at the same time, they have to make a connection with each person, and hear what the patients have to say.

The laudatory increase in technical sophistication in medicine has unfortunately carried with it a deleterious consequence—a decrease in the reliance on perceptive human skills in assessing patients. The physician may be more likely to get the diagnosis right, but less likely to show empathy, and to make sure the patient understands what is happening and will cooperate with treatment.

The Human Side of Medicine 

Often, our students select a path to medical school so early in their lives that they are spared from doing jobs where they could learn customer-service skills, and could learn to recognize social cues from people, and then use these with patients, to identify feelings like dread, anxiety, and anger. There’s a wide range of capacity to read affect. How well we do in that range, reading it well or poorly, is a result of how much practice we’ve had. I think we’re missing that in the premature crystallization of identity that keeps a youngster who wants to be a doctor in a kind of a bubble, with limited opportunity to talk to a lot of people and try to ascertain how they feel. I am not devaluing shadowing of doctors or working in a research lab, but making the case for the doctors to be immersing themselves in experience with people.

I encourage the admissions department at RUSM to look for well-rounded applicants, especially those who have spent time in a role that trains a person how to be good at customer service — which is essentially how to connect to humankind. 


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