10 ways doctors can lose their patients

As a neuropsychologist, I have the chance to talk to patients throughout the week in detail about their medical histories, supplemented by a comprehensive medical records review. Part of this involves discussing which provider the patient has seen and if the provider was changed, why. Sometimes, a provider is changed for a benign reason, such as a move or an insurance change but other times there are significant complaints. Granted, there are always two sides to every story but when I consistently hear the same or similar story from different patients year after year, the stories gain credibility.

Then, when I start to notice the same problems during my own doctor visits, I know there are some serious problems that can be fixed. So, listed below are my top 10 ways for doctors to lose patients from their practice. If you have others to add to the list, please do so.

10. Not accepting lists of symptoms or timelines from patients. If you see patients, you know they range on a continuum from poor historians who have no idea why they are there to see you and those who arrive with carefully constructed histories that they are eager to give you as soon as you walk in. Just about the worst thing you can do when this happens is to tell the patient that you don’t want the list and do not even want to look at it. That connotes a dismissive attitude to the patient and it makes them feel like all of their work was for nothing – work that was done in the hopes it would help you figure out what was wrong. You may have very good reason at the time not to look at the list such as time pressure, but at least take the list and say you will later take a look at it. It will likely provide you some useful information.

9. Asking patients to choose what type of medication they want to take. When a patient has a medical condition in need of medical treatment, the physician is looked to provide their advice as to what medication to take. They don’t want to be given a list of three possible medications, told to research them at home, and come back with a decision. From a patient’s perspective, this is why the doctor went to medical school, not me.

8. Long wait times and no apology and/or rushing the patient once coming in. While no patients want to wait long, they will generally accept the wait time if they are pleased with the care you provide, or if it the initial visit, know that you have a good reputation. However, if the patient waits long and you then walk in and do not acknowledge the wait, explain why there was a wait, and apologize for the wait, it will significantly aggravate the patient. Rush the patient after a long wait and no apology and it will worsen the situation further.

7. Poor bedside manner. This is an easy one and has been addressed extensively by others, but don’t do things such as repeatedly looking at the clock, repeatedly interrupting patients, focusing more on you than the patient, talking rudely, making poor eye contact, etc. Follow the Golden Rule and you will easily establish rapport the majority of the time.

6. Not being responsive to challenging questions. Provided that a patient is being respectful, there is no reason to become upset when a patient asks questions challenging a diagnosis or course of treatment. Most patients are generally accepting of your expertise but they may have heard or read something that has given them legitimate questions. Your answers can help reassure the patient that your diagnosis and treatment is correct. Patients are also usually more impressed when you tell them you have no problem with them seeking a second opinion rather than demanding they only accept one point of view and/or becoming overly defensive. Also, patients (or families) sometimes come up with questions that can lead you to entertain an idea you did not previously think of that can improve care. Don’t shy away from this. Embrace it.

5. Disrespectful staff. While the patient may like the care you provide, there are a host of other people they need to interact with before and after the appointment. This includes the receptionist, billing staff, nurses, and others. If these individuals are rude and disrespectful, the patient will likely switch to another provider whose friends and family say have better ancillary staff. It is like owning a restaurant with good food but a terrible hostess and waitress. Many people will just choose a different restaurant. Train your staff to treat your patients they way they would want to be treated (and teach them how to manage patients who are rude) and you will have a happy client base.

4. Drab and dreary office space. No one likes to go to the doctor. Take some time to make it a more enjoyable experience. Have comfortable seats in the waiting area and waiting room, put some nice art up on the walls (geared towards children if it is a pediatric office), have a TV on with cable (with cartoon options for children), soft music, etc. Whether right or wrong, offices that are bare, uncomfortable, and cold looking convey a message that the patient perspective is not being considered.

3. Being unavailable when needed during routine business hours. When the answering service repeatedly picks up the phone during normal business hours, it is extremely frustrating for patients. Same with staff not returning phone calls or being absent for 1.5 hours during lunch time. Patients need to have access to staff during normal office hours to make appointments and ask questions.

2. Cancelling/rescheduling appointments too often. Patients are understanding when a doctor needs to cancel or reschedule but not if it happens too often. This was highlighted in the recent trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, whose former patient testified that after two follow-up appointments were cancelled he felt that the doctor blew him off. The patient never followed up with Dr. Murray again.

1. Making decisions that cause patient harm that were easily avoidable. While patients will sometimes give doctors a second chance, they won’t be inclined to do this if harm occurred to the patient or a family member that could have easily been avoidable. This is especially true if the harm happened to a child. As a personal example, I recall repeatedly explaining to my pediatrician that my child’s cough and wheezing was persistent and affecting her breathing, only to be repeatedly told that it was only allergies, despite the fact that she was cleared by an allergist and was not improving with allergy medications or a nebulizer. Finally, and only by pressuring the physician to do more, was a chest x-ray ordered. Diagnosis: double pneumonia and a week long hospital stay. Totally avoidable. The new pediatrician is very responsive and we have been very pleased for many years.

Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.

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