Article Date: 6/1/2004

Defusing Dissatisfied Patients
With a little planning, you and your staff can smoothly handle patients' complaints and keep them in your practice.
By Walter D. West, O.D., F.A.A.O.

Nobody likes to deal with unhappy patients. The mere thought of staring into a pair of angry eyes is enough to give even the most seasoned professional sweaty palms. Luckily, 95% of patient interactions are pleasant and trouble-free. It's the other 5% we need to be prepared for.

When confronted by an angry patient, we experience a combination of fear, anger and embarrassment. The challenge is to not give in to these feelings and become defensive, but to approach the situation calmly and professionally.

Our ability to communicate effectively in these circumstances will help us improve our patient's satisfaction, as well as our practice's ability to retain and satisfy patients in the long term. With this goal in mind, every practice should develop a strategy for dealing with problems as they arise. Here are some key components to consider.

View from the front line

Patients tend to treat you -- the doctor -- with respect. Unfortunately, the same rules don't always apply for your staff members, who are often the primary targets of patient dissatisfaction. A patient who may not show anger or frustration to you might turn the full force of these emotions on your staff.

Eerie Silence

If you're troubled by a dissatisfied patient's complaints, consider the ones who don't complain at all. The President's Council on Consumer Affairs found that for every consumer who complains about a service-related business, there are 26 consumers who leave that business without a word. Can your practice survive these odds?

When you ask patients to complete patient satisfaction surveys, you create an open forum that can help you gain valuable information about how you can improve your service.

Your staff is also more likely to encounter hostility because they operate on the front lines of your practice, where patients see them first and last and talk to them on the phone. Most complaints are made over the phone or in person to your staff. Only a few go directly to you.

A complaint policy will minimize stress and give your staff the proper tools, training and, most importantly, authority to handle patient complaints.

Start with a succinct, easy-to-remember philosophy, such as: "Treat patients the way you'd like to be treated yourself." Keeping this philosophy in mind, you can move forward with your practice policy.

Empower your staff

To help your staff handle dissatisfied patients calmly and confidently, your complaint policy should include a problem-solving protocol for staff to follow. The protocol may vary depending on your practice, but should include a few basic actions.

Introduce yourself. When confronted by an angry patient, a staff member should start by introducing herself and asking what she can do to help. If she's on the phone, it's important to emphasize her accountability for helping the patient. She might say, "Mr. Jones, thank you for bringing this to my attention. My name is Anne and I'll be working with you to correct this situation."

Show how you feel. If the patient is in the office, a staff member can reinforce his sincerity and willingness to help through facial expressions and body language.

For example, if your technician is behind a counter, desk or dispensing table when a patient approaches, he should stand up and join the patient on the other side while maintaining eye contact. Meeting on equal footing lets the patient know that the staff member isn't an adversary but an ally who's committed to solving the problem.

Listen. The next step in the problem-solving protocol is to listen to the patient's complaint, gathering the background information needed to solve his problem. Don't rush the patient or finish his sentences to speed up the complaint process. Most patient complaints can be resolved quickly by clearing up a misunderstanding. Using your listening skills may very well lead to a quick solution. Once the patient finishes, repeat his main points back to him to show that his problem is important to you and you're committed to achieving resolution.

Offer a solution. Give your staff the freedom to think of possible solutions. Be sure to be clear about which common solutions your staff can offer without checking with you, and which ones require your approval. If a patient is upset about something you did or didn't do, that solution might include a phone call from you.

Follow up. Always have your staff follow up a patient complaint with a letter thanking the patient for taking time to identify how you can improve your service. This letter could commend the patient's customer service savvy and welcome additional suggestions that could improve the quality of your service. Instead of losing a dissatisfied patient, you will gain a valuable practice advocate.

Extending your influence

Your staff is a valuable resource. Don't be afraid to depend on those you hire and trust to give your patients good customer service. Staff members who have good communication skills and customer awareness can turn a difficult situation into a positive experience that benefits your patients and your practice.

Dr. West is the chief optometric editor of Optometric Management magazine.


Optometric Management, Issue: June 2004