Article Date: 5/1/2002

Lessons Learned
Misery Loves Company

Think you're alone in having to deal with griping patients? Think again.
Jack Runniger, O.D.

"Why on earth would you check out of a fine hospital in New York City to come to a sorry small-town hospital like this?" asked a friend of Art Eritis. "Did they treat you badly?"

"No, they were wonderful," replied Art.

"Well then, was the food bad?"

"No, it was delicious!"

"The nurses and doctors?"

"Couldn't have been better!"

"Well then, just why did you transfer here?"

"Here, I can complain!"

A problem for everyone

Even though sometimes it may seem so, it's probably not true that all of the patients like Mr. Eritis, who aren't happy unless they're complaining, are in your practice. A few years ago, a Consumer Reports study estimated that approximately 7% of the patients of O.D.s and M.D.s returned with their glasses because of some degree of dissatisfaction.

Dr. Neal Bailey, former editor of Contact Lens Forum, once told me that he overheard a group of optometrists talking about complaining patients at a meeting. "One of the O.D.s maintained that he didn't have any dissatisfied patients," Dr. Bailey recalled.

"I found this hard to believe, so I checked up on his practice and found that he had almost no practice at all. No one with a good practice ever escapes having their share of griping patients."


Pacify the squeaky wheels

I always found it comforting in practice when a patient was telling me what a lousy optometrist I was, to realize that I wasn't alone, and that others were suffering the same fate. The old "misery loves company" principle.

Nevertheless, it still behooves the health of your practice to do all you can to make the complainers happy so that they don't warn other potential patients in the area of your ineptitude.

What's really the problem?

In attempting to solve the complaining patient's problem, first determine the root of the problem.

"If a patient complains that she can't see as well with her new glasses; that they give her a headache and that her husband doesn't like the frame," I once heard a speaker say, "Then her chief source of dissatisfaction is probably the frame."

"Almost always it's the last complaint they voice" she continued. I've found this to be a perceptive analysis, and a great help in determining what you need to do.

One of the main problems I've had in dealing with unhappy patients is that I always felt frustrated and irked. Not so much at the patient as at the whole situation. I wanted to be loved by everyone and this didn't fit that pattern.

Consequently, I'm afraid I often came across as being irritated. And as Werner and Press say in their book, Clinical Pearls in Refractive Care, "The patient will sense if you're annoyed and this will mitigate against a solution."

First and foremost, listen

The main lesson I learned about dealing with patients who returned with a complaint can be summed up in one word -- listen. I found out that they'd rid themselves of much of their anger if I let them express it without my interrupting.

Practice management authorities say that you should be happy when dissatisfied patients come back to give you an opportunity to solve their complaint. Frankly, I never was. I hate to admit I always secretly wished they'd gone someplace else and left me alone. 



Optometric Management, Issue: May 2002