'Our local doctor is as good as anyone else's, I suppose, although I don't really know that as I have little choice'

The other day I was thinking about what would happen if I or anyone in my family fell ill.

I have made several speeches recently for the NHS, one of them.at the progressive NHS foundation trust in Essex. The trust is a member.of the Institute of Customer Service and is really committed to improving customer satisfaction. Listening to staff there.made me think about primary care.

Our local doctor is as good as anyone else's I suppose, although I don't really know that as I have little choice. The surgery is only open when my wife and I are at work, so it is.not easy to get there anyway. It is.closed when I'm coming home. It is.closed in the evening..It is.closed at the weekends, and the recorded message is based in a town 10 miles away as part of a much bigger, faceless practice.

If you do take time off work and go, you must first.get past the receptionist, whose job seems to be to stop you from seeing a doctor or getting more medication. If you do see the doctor or nurse, they are charming and professional, but what a struggle to get there....

Similarly, my dentist is only open when I am.at work, never in the evening or at.weekends, and they seem to hire the same receptionist.

Service shortfall

My local accident and emergency.is 14 miles away, and on the odd occasion I have.had to use it, they have.been pretty OK on the medical side. However, on the customer service side they have some room for improvement.

First, they clearly do not.want me, or any family or visitors, to be there at all, as the car park is totally inadequate and the charges astronomical.

Everywhere there are signs telling you what you cannot do - no mobile phones, no smoking, no entry, no sitting. Most of these are attached to the wall with five-year-old tape, and many are so small that no one with sight difficulties can see them, especially the signs to the eye clinic.

Research carried out by the Institute of Customer Service has shown that the best way to build a great reputation for customer service is to handle queries and complaints brilliantly..Maybe I should scatter some free copies of the document around.

I was talking about this to a friend yesterday and he told me that he had.taken his elderly mother to the hospital the previous.week as she had an irritation in her eye. The doctor spent the whole time scowling and.using language (sparsely) that neither of them understood..She failed to reassure the patient or explain what she was doing and why. However, when she left the patient, she went over to her colleagues and was suddenly bubbly, friendly and talkative...

What would Tesco do?

Well, despite some rumours to the contrary in the popular press, it is pretty difficult to find fault with the actual medical treatment provided by.doctors, dentists and in hospitals. Medical professionals - nurses, doctors and support staff - are well trained, capable and efficient. However, imagine how great it would be if they all worked to improve customer service..Imagine your local hospital as a branch of John Lewis, Pret a Manger, or Tesco - how would they do it?..

There is a lot of talk about the health service getting worse. We all need to be reminded that the NHS is not.free. We all pay for it in our taxes, and we pay for it in advance, whether or not we are.ill, so don't we have a right to expect good service as well as good treatment?

Ten years ago it was widely accepted that we would not.get good service from our local authority. In just a few years, this has been turned around all over the country and many local authorities now give better service than many private sector organisations. This has been led primarily from inside - the management and staff have realised what was needed and got on and done it. Perhaps now it is.the turn of the health sector. I applaud those who have become pioneers in this and wish them every success.

Paul Cooper.is co-founder of the Institute of Customer Service.