Why patient complaints are an opportunity

I have not always been excited to hear patient complaints. As a younger manager I absolutely dreaded when a patient wanted to speak to me. I felt that I had little to offer a patient who expressed anger or frustration with something that had happened and I was very impatient to get past the complaint and get back to my “job.”

Now, I can’t wait to hear patients’ complaints. Complaints are the only opportunity managers have to understand the patient’s experience and hear in their own words what went wrong for them. By listening carefully, you have the potential to accomplish several goals.

  1. You can heal the patient’s complaint, first by making sure the patient feels heard, and second by addressing the problem if something needs to be done.
  2. You can gain insight into an experience in the practice and dissect it to see why the problem occurred and what can be done to fix it.
  3. You can model to the staff how important patient complaints are and how seriously you take them.
  4. You can retain the patient for the practice, and hopefully make them a fan who will recommend your group to friends and family.

In the past it might have taken a lot for a patient to complain to the manager as many patients will not risk disenfranchising a physician they really like. Today is the advent of the consumerist patient, and people are feeling empowered to complain about problems in healthcare ( a good thing!) Healthcare managers need to step up to the plate to meet them and make sincere attempts to cultivate a positive patient experience from beginning to end.

Here’s how I suggest you listen to patients:

  • Instruct staff to prioritize patients calling and asking for the manager. Unless you are in the middle of a meeting, take all patient calls as they come in. If you cannot take the call, ask the staff to make sure to document the best time to return the call and the number. Prioritize returning the call.
  • You can delegate patient complaints to subordinate managers once you feel completely confident that they can handle the complaints appropriately, but you should continue to take calls periodically and check complaint documentation to make sure everything is going as you intend it to.
  • Listen to the patient until they are done talking. Apologize and let them know that their experience is not what you want for patients. Go back over the complaint and ask questions to make sure you understand what happened.
  • Tell the patient you will investigate the complaint and give them a definite date and time when you will call them back to report on what you’ve found.
  • Talk to all staff and physicians involved in the incident. Call the patient back and share any information that is appropriate. Most patients will be satisfied to receive a call back and hear that their complaint has been discussed.
  • Offer your direct phone number to patients and invite them to call you if they have any further problems. A nice touch is to invite patients to ask for you when they come in next for an appointment so you can meet them face-to-face.

Mary Pat Whaley is board certified in healthcare management and a fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives.  She blogs at Manage My Practice.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. Do you have any recommendations for how to document complaints and track over time? How do you do it?

  • Mary Pat Whaley

    I have a basic form that I ask patients to complete if I am not able to meet with them at the time. Some feel more comfortable writing about their concern than talking about it face-to-face. If the patient and I speak, I document the situation on the form myself. I place the forms in a notebook for the physicians to review at weekly or monthly business meetings. Patient complaints and category of complaint should be one of the indicators you track on your practice dashboard (a one-page snapshot of monthly and year-to-date activity.)

    If you’d like a copy of my patient complaint form, please email me at marypat@@managemypractice:disqus.com and I’ll be glad to send it to you.

    Mary Pat

  • Robert Stramski

    I love customer complaints in my independent NP practice. “Patients” are customers and want value for their dollar. we have very few complaints in our 5,000 patient practice and when we do, I personally jump right on them. We have grown so quickly by taking advantage of other providers’ attitudes, unwillingness to see the customer, and unwillingness to listen. Customers are equals and should be serviced accordingly. Needless to say, we are busier than we want to be. Our practice is fully EHR (no problem and very affordable), a certified medical home, and is thriving financially with two family practice NPs. We serve customers with minor emergent healthcare needs and long term chronic illnesses effectively and profitably.When the other providers in our community don’t want to take the messy cases (toenails, hemorrhoids, IV fluids, or whatever and shove them off on an ER) the customers come to us to get the job done. Other providers keep doing what you are doing! Long live the customer and long live our independent NP practice as we provide quality affordable nurse managed healthcare with compassion, big ears, and kindness!

  • http://twitter.com/AfternoonNapper Afternoon Napper


    Thank you for this post. As a patient, I have had to complain to higher ups twice. I do not take it lightly, and I know that the managers have been on edge. However, I make it my responsibility to frame my complaints in manners that are constructive because ultimately it not just about me—it’s about better patient care overall. While I may be somewhat angry, I can still be rational and matter of fact. Your post is part of the discussion about how patents and medical staff can improve communication  among one another, and that is a good thing. 

  • http://twitter.com/LittlePatient Haleh

    I really appreciate this post.  At its core is not getting defensive when a patient complains.  Afterall regardless of the complaint, the patient still desires some type of relationship with your office otherwise they would have not even bothered to pick up the phone.

  • Anonymous

    Your six suggestions for handling patient complaints should be required reading for all medical staff, especially:

    “Apologize and let them know that their experience is not what you want for patients.”

    Bingo!   This choice alone will go a long way – more than most docs may believe! – in addressing a patient’s dissatisfaction.  Or, for that matter, the dissatisfaction of any consumer!  After a burst ceiling pipe flooded my laptop recently, I finally had to go down to my computer dealer in person to ask why they had not yet sent their incident report to my insurance company (as they had promised to do one full week earlier) – and their only response: “Oh, we’ve been busy!”  What a difference it would have made had they instead said to me: “We’re very sorry, and your experience is not what we want for our customers!”

    And when it comes to health care, common courtesy can go a very long way to defusing patient complaints.  When I sent a complaint letter to the manager of our hospital’s cardiology unit after a particularly distressing echocardiogram appointment, I was pleased (and shocked!) to learn that the manager had not only read aloud my letter at her next weekly staff meeting, but posted my “Top 10 Tips On How To Treat Your Patients” in staff rooms around the hospital.  This was a concrete and tangible way to respond in a way that tells the patient that the manager “gets it”. More on this at: http://myheartsisters.org/2009/07/10/open-letter/

    By the way, I also believe that it’s just as important to send a note of commendation and gratitude for health care that goes above and beyond the norm.  Sometimes we are far quicker to complain than we are to congratulate!

  • WhiteCoat Rants

    I think that the writer was rude, didn’t pay attention to the topic, and was insensitive. I’d rate this article as a “zero”.

    Now … if you gasped after reading that sentence, realize that the majority of patient complaints we get in the emergency department are similar in nature – and similarly baseless. Most of the time they center around a physician who won’t give a patient a prescription for narcotics, who won’t write an inappropriate work excuse, or who won’t prescribe inappropriate antibiotics. Those complaints are then used to take adverse actions against physicians up to and including termination of employment.

    While this article makes good points for addressing legitimate complaints, let’s not forget that some complaints are a means to blackmail physicians into providing medically inappropriate care.

    As a fellow of the ACMPE, how do you suggest that we differentiate between legitimate and baseless complaints and what are your suggestions for opportunities that can be gleaned from baseless complaints?

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