Why physicians should welcome patient complaints

Physician communication is the number one factor most highly correlated with the likelihood that patients will return to a hospital or medical practice. This conclusion is one that I have personally experienced and highlighted as a speaker at healthcare conferences and seminars and when consulting with fellow physicians on improving communication and building and maintaining a successful practice.

Physician communication is so important because understandably patients are anxious about their health and healthcare and rely on providers, especially personal physicians, surgeons and specialists, to ease their anxiety and address their concerns.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is that communication problems cause the vast majority of malpractice lawsuits. In fact, physicians in the lowest third on communication ratings have 110 percent more lawsuits than those in the top third.

Effective patient-centered communication by physicians significantly improves the odds that patients will adhere to the recommended treatment plan and will be much better in self-management of chronic disease, resulting in improved patient outcomes for diabetes, hypertension and cancer. And this is what we all desire.

In addition, several studies have established that physicians who communicate well with their patients find that their work is less stressful and more fulfilling than those who do not.

When thinking about improving communications physicians can rely on this key principle – Turn up the warmth and you’ll turn down the heat. A best practice approach to handling patient complaints includes these steps:

  • Listen to the patient’s story or concern.
  • Empathize.
  • Use a blameless apology.  Express sincere regret that the person has in any way suffered without blaming anyone for the problem.  “I’m so sorry the wait was so frustrating for you.”
  • Act:  Do whatever you can to remedy the problem.
  • Thank the person for speaking up.

And when responding to patient complaints the successful physician communicator will avoid these practices:

  • Discounting what the patient says (“That couldn’t be. We don’t do that here. You don’t understand. That shouldn’t upset you.”)
  • Arguing and making excuses (“There were good reasons for that.”)
  • Blaming others or the organization (“Sorry.  It’s a zoo here!” Or “Sorry, that happened because we’re short-staffed.”  Or, “That doctor always does that.”)

When thinking about best practices for handling complaints physicians will want to remember that complaints are inevitable, no matter how skilled, professional, and caring you might be. The science and art of handling complaints well is called “service recovery.” And most important, physicians should welcome complaints because when people speak up about their dissatisfaction it gives us a second chance to make things right.

When you handle complaints well, you can often create an even more satisfied patient who is grateful for your responsiveness, will continue to return year after year, and will brag to friends and family about what a wonderful physician you are.

Carla J. Rotering is vice president, physician services, Leebov Golde Group. She is the co-author of The Language of Caring Guide for Physicians: Communication Essentials for Patient-Centered Care.

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