Article Date: 8/1/2004


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Learning From Your Patients
The best advice can come from patients. But be careful -- see why.
By Gary Gerber, O.D.

I recently arrived home after a trip to find a survey from the hotel where I just stayed. While at the hotel, I had complained that even though I had booked a "guaranteed reservation" for a no-smoking room, upon my arrival the front desk staff told me there weren't any left. After a bit of insistence, they found me a no-smoking room. I relayed that story on the survey and mailed it back.

Fast forward three months to the same hotel (nothing was available anywhere else in the area). The front desk staff tells me, "Your room preference isn't guaranteed until you check in." I explain that the hotel's Web site doesn't say that and after a repeat performance with some foot stomping, whining and complaining, I get my no-smoking room.

Don't care? Then don't ask

We recommend that our clients continually survey their patient base. Doing so gives them a constant pulse on what patients feel is important (or unimportant) in their doctor's practice. However, we should all be conscious of one vital matter when conducting patient surveys: Namely, if you're going to solicit potential complaints, comments or suggestions from patients and you receive similar feedback from multiple patients, you'll have to address the patients' concerns. If you're not willing to address a potential problem that your patients bring up, then don't bother asking their opinions in the first place!

A disappointing realization

As I think about my two poor customer service experiences at the hotel, I wonder whether I was disappointed the second time because they didn't have my room or because they just plain ignored my survey comments. It was probably both, with the latter comprising a much larger share. I mistakenly assumed that if the hotel was willing to survey its guests, it would take their advice. But somehow I doubt I was the only traveler to notice that a "guaranteed reservation" is neither guaranteed nor reserved.

Directing your questions

A related issue involves qualifying the population of whom you ask your questions. One example is e-mailing patients and asking them, "Would you book your next appointment online by using our Web site?" In this case, most patients would answer affirmatively -- after all, they're at least Internet savvy enough to have an e-mail address. Ask the same question via snail mail to patients who didn't provide an e-mail address and you could rightly predict a smaller number of "Yes" responses.

But, much less obvious surveying traps can slip by a lackadaisical editing process. What if your current schedule has your one late night as Thursday and you're changing it to Tuesday? To see if that would be wise, you send a survey to your patients and ask, "What's the best night of the week for you to come in for an exam?" Don't overlook the logic ambush of pre-qualifying respondents with a deck stacked in favor of "Thursday" replies. You haven't given your patients the choice of visiting your office on a Tuesday night because you're not open then.

Tap your resources

Ask well thought-out questions of the correct cohort of patients and act on the information. It's not always straightforward, but the results you gather, when interpreted correctly, provide valuable practice-building information.

Dr. Gerber is the president of the Power Practice, a company specializing in making optometrists more profitable.  Learn more at or call Dr. Gerber at (800) 867-9303.


Optometric Management, Issue: August 2004