Service at the Touch of a Button

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders News , September 19, 2007

The future, my friend, is in kiosks. No more waiting in line to register at the ER--patients can check themselves in with the swipe of an insurance card. No more visitors wandering the halls in frustration--they simply go to the kiosk and punch in their destination to get a map and directions in English, Spanish or Farsi. Baby boomers with creaky joints can print out a brochure on the hospital's top-rated orthopedic program. Press the red button to get a two-for-one coupon on total joint replacement surgery!

Is there anything that kiosks can't do?

You wouldn't know it from reading articles like this one, which has nary a negative word to say about them, but self-service computers aren't the ultimate customer service solution they're cracked up to be.

Sure, they can ease ER wait times, improve patient flow and aid in wayfinding, which can have a positive impact on patient satisfaction and create positive word-of-mouth. There are other marketing uses as well, as I reported in an article on making a good first impression with patients and visitors last July.

But if you've ever used one of those self-service checkouts at the grocery store or a self-serve ticket counter at an airline, then you know that technology does not always behave as you expect it to. More often than not, you find yourself waiting under a blinking light for the cashier to come and key in the code for a quart of kumquats.

And I don't know about you, but every time I use the self-service ticket kiosk at the airport, I get stuck in a middle seat at the very back of the plane. This does not have a positive impact on my feelings about the grocery store's or airline's brand.

We love gadgets so much that we sometimes forget to ask if they are really the best solution to a problem-or if in fact they will end up causing problems of their own. And we tend to overlook a much simpler customer service tool--one that has a heartbeat and a smiling, friendly face.

"One of the myths now is that technology can solve everything," Janet R. Carpman, PhD, an architectural sociologist with wayfinding consultants Carpman Grant Associates in Ann Arbor, MI, told me in the interview for the July story. "Not everybody is comfortable using technology, technology is not perfect and no single wayfinding element will solve all problems."

If they're not extremely user-friendly, reliable and convenient, the kiosks are basically useless, added Michael Gilpin, vice president of marketing at Blessing Health System in Quincy, IL. Think about your audience. If your ER is overrun by young, hip technologically-savvy patients, then by all means invest in some kiosks.

If not, you might do better to hire a few more people to help with intake and registration. "Systems are not a substitute for human interaction," says Gilpin.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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