Dealing with Difficult Patients Takes Patience
A patient or family member is unhappy. Maybe she is displeased by the wait to see a provider, or felt ill-treated, or doesn’t like the way the business part of her visit went. What to do?
Several academic models are published in clinical and business literature, and a review of the Internet is extremely helpful; but most are simply based on the Golden Rule. If you were she, what would you want you to do?
- Be grateful – First, be grateful your customer feels she can complain and you have the opportunity. Thank the person for taking the time to speak and that this is an opportunity for you and your practice to improve.
- Listen – Regardless of the issue, what the complaining patient perceives is real to her. Let the patient or family member tell you what she thinks is wrong. Don’t interrupt, patronize, or try to out shout her. Maintain eye contact unless you are taking notes, but be sure to focus your attention on her.
- Don’t take it personally – The person is complaining about a problem, not you. Divorce yourself from any negativity she may have and listen for the real issue. Something else wholly unrelated to the issue being discussed or your practice may be behind the anger and frustration. Understand that some people feel that a complaint will only be resolved if they are aggressive.
- Respond positively – Be empathetic. Apologize for the negative experience. When you have natural break in the conversation, reflect back what you think the patient or family member is saying. This lets her know you’re listening and helps clarify the issue. Give her a chance to correct your perceptions.
- Learn as much as you can – Ask clarifying questions so you understand as much as you can. Let her know that the questions are not being asked because there is any question about the veracity of her concerns but that you want to be sure you understand what is happening.
- Log the complaint – Keep a log telling who, what, and why. Leave space to document a resolution and a follow-up date. You can identify legitimate trends from an ongoing log of complaints, which can be traced to process, an error, a provider, or staff member. The complaint is an opportunity to improve the practice.
- Assure follow up. Explain what will happen from there, and ask if she would like to document it on a simple form. Get contact information if you do not have it. Be certain to set a tickler to contact her via email, mail, or phone to communicate progress or resolution to her problem.
- Act – Investigate the issue with providers and staff involved and help develop a solution.
- Make everybody a winner – Seek the best outcome. By giving a little, you win a lot. If all parties feel like something has been conceded by the other, especially in a financial dispute, fairness prevails and the issue should be over.
Sometimes, however, the issue is unresolvable. What do you do then?
You can still listen. Many angry patients and customers just want to be listened to. Let her blow off steam, reflect back to let her know you are listening, and be patient. At some point, you will see an opportunity to explain why the situation cannot be resolved. Be patient; be kind. Never once raise your voice or sarcastic.
Explain the reasons in a way she will understand and never once blame it on a rule, payer, or the government with explaining why. Take time, and look for opportunities to help your patient or family member even if the situation is rigid.
It takes energy, patience, and time, but listening, letting her know of her importance to your practice, and a mutual resolution may be one of the best referral tools you can have.