Managing Your Practice

Resolving patients' complaints


For most physicians, the resolution of patients’ complaints ranks second only to firing an employee on the Least Favorite Tasks List. With so many potential problems, and so many ways patients can react to them, it seems impossible to construct any sort of template for consistent, mutually satisfactory resolutions.

But it can be done, and it’s not as complex as it appears, once you realize that the vast majority of complaints have the same basic root: The patient’s expectations have not been met. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes the patient’s, and often a bit of both, but either way, the result is the same: You have an unhappy patient, and you must deal with it.

I have distilled this unpleasant duty down to a simple, three-part strategy:

• Discover which expectations went unmet and why.

• Agree on a solution.

• Learn from the experience, to prevent similar future complaints.

In most cases, this is not a job you should delegate. Unless the complaint is trivial or purely administrative, you should address it yourself. It’s what you would want if you were the complainant, and it’s often too important to trust to a subordinate.

At this point, you may be asking, "Why should I care?" Is the personal expenditure of your time and effort necessary to resolve complaints really worth it? Absolutely, because the old cliché is true: A satisfied patient will refer 5 new ones, but a dissatisfied one will frighten away 20 or more. Besides, if the complaint is significant and you don’t resolve it, the patient is likely to find someone who will; and chances are you won’t like their choice, or the eventual resolution.

Of course, the easiest way to deal with complaints is to prevent as many as possible in the first place. Try to nip unrealistic expectations in the bud. Take the time in advance to explain all treatments and procedures, and their most likely outcomes, in a clear and honest manner. And since even the most astute patients will not absorb everything you tell them, make liberal use of written handouts and other visual aids.

And, of course, document everything you have explained. Documentation is like garlic: There is no such thing as too much of it.

But despite your best efforts, there will always be complaints, and handling them is a skill set worth honing. The most important skill in that set is the one most people – especially physicians – do poorly: Listening to the complaint. Before you can resolve a problem, you have to know what it is, and this is precisely the wrong time to make assumptions or jump to conclusions.

So listen to the entire complaint without interrupting, defending, or justifying. Angry patients don’t care why the problem occurred, and they are not interested in your side of the story. This is not about you, so listen and understand.

As you listen, the unmet expectations will become clear. When the patient is finished, I like to summarize the complaint in that context: "So, if I understand you correctly, you expected "X" to happen, but "Y" happened instead." If I’m wrong, I modify my summary until the patient agrees that I understand the problem.

Once you know the problem, you can talk about a solution. The patient usually has one in mind – additional treatment, a referral elsewhere, a fee adjustment, or sometimes simply an apology. Consider it.

If the patient’s solution is reasonable, by all means, agree to it; if it is unreasonable, try to offer a reasonable alternative. The temptation is to think more about protecting yourself than about making the patient happy, but that often leads to bigger problems. Don’t be defensive. Remember, this is not about you.

I am often asked if refunding a fee is a reasonable solution. Some patients (and lawyers) will interpret a refund as a tacit admission of guilt, so I generally try to avoid them. However, cancelling a small fee for an angry patient can be very prudent, and in my opinion that looks exactly like what it is: an honest effort to rectify the situation. But in general, free (or reduced-fee) additional materials or services are a better alternative than refunding money.

Once you have arrived at a mutually satisfactory solution, again, document everything, but consider reserving a "private" chart area for such documentation (unless it is a bona fide clinical issue) so that it won’t go out to referrers and other third parties with copies of your clinical notes. Also, consider having the patient sign off on the documentation, acknowledging that the complaint has been resolved.


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