Make the Most of Patient Complaints

Find value in dissatisfied customers.

By Michelle A. Richards, CPC, CPMA,
Practice managers wear many hats, from overseeing daily operational activities to optimizing revenue. For many practice managers, handling patient complaints is a least favorite part of the job. But consider this: In most cases, a patient will not leave the practice due to a complaint, but rather the way it was handled.
Consider Complaints Carefully
An effective practice manager creates a work environment that values complaints as a means of strengthening the practice and improving patient relations. In other words, you should greet complaints as opportunities, rather than liabilities.
An effective complaint-handling system should embrace the principles of fairness, accessibility, responsiveness, efficiency, and integration (effectively adopting new protocols, etc.). One simple model to consider when handling complaints is LAST:
Listen to the patient
Apologize for not meeting his or her expectations
Service the patient
Thank the patient
Managers or other staff handling complaints must be skilled and professional at all times. No exceptions. It’s extremely important to remain calm and de-escalate situations, especially when dealing with an irate patient. If the patient is complaining in the waiting room, he or she should be asked to move to a private office so as not to disturb other patients.
Use Tracking to Isolate Problem Areas
Always track patient complaints. You may be surprised to find patterns, such as complaints consistently directed toward or stemming from:

  • The same provider
  • The same employee(s)
  • The same situation (not getting results, orders, prescriptions)
  • The same time of day
  • The same day of the week

Information about complaints should be examined as part of a continuous process of organizational review and improvement. The longer a trend continues, the more difficult it becomes to hold accountable those responsible. Tracking allows you to identify and correct potential problem areas early. Unfortunately, many managers wait until they have an influx of complaints, and it may be too late to perform recovery. The rule of thumb is if more than one person has complained about the same issue, review the process.
Prepare for Occasional Failure
How you handle complaints relates directly to patient outcomes. Patients are more informed, and they know how competitive healthcare has become. Put a process in place for handling complaints to reassure patients the practice is committed to resolving problems and improving processes. In doing so, you will build loyalty and efficiency in your practice.

Michelle A. Richards, CPC, CPMA, is director of practice management for EMH Health Care, Elyria, Ohio. She has 22 years of practice management experience and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Care Administration. Richards is also a consultant for AAPC Client Services.

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