How physicians should deal with angry patients

I highly recommend you take a look at “10 Dumb things you do at the doc’s office.”  Be sure to scan the article, but what you really need to look at is the comments, all 700+ of them.

While by no means a representative sample of how we think about physicians, there is a clear pattern to the comments.  A lot of people feel disrespected by their doctors, and they are pretty angry.

Here’s what patients (including a lot of former patients) had to say.  I attempted to summarize the comments by category and included the top five categories of comments below.

1. Being on time is a two way street. Patients are expected to be on time for their appointments – why aren’t physicians expected to be on time.   Doctor’s think and act as if their time is more valuable than the patient’s time.

2. Listen to what I have to say. “Doctors should realize that many patients have more life experience and have done more research about a condition and drug and may possibly know more than them. God forbid!”  “If you do not like listening to your patients and getting proper information from them, you are in the wrong business.”

3. Don’t just hear one or two of my complaints. “You try telling the doctor all the problems you have and the doctor stops you mid-way, telling you that he or she will take care of two and to come back again for other issues!”  “What about someone like me who is on disability for a multitude of health problems?  What then?”

4. Treat the patient like a sentient human being instead of a lump of potatoes and you will get intelligent patients.

5. Let the patient ask a few questions ok? I’d ask more questions if I wasn’t treated like I was a crazy hypochondriac or an idiot every time I did.

Too be sure there were a handful of supportive patient comments.  Even a few physicians tried to explain themselves, but these folks were quickly shouted down by the mob.

What does it all mean for physicians?  What should physicians do?

Based upon my 20+ years of experience working in health care marketing here’s is what I recommend:

  • Realize that patient satisfaction surveys often do not tell the whole story. That’s because people who are really dissatisfied will not waste the time telling you.   Rather they will go on to tell 10 other people how bad you are.
  • Evaluate these patient comments in the context of your own practice. You alone know if any of these comments consistently apply to your practice.   I doubt very much that these patient comments were coming from patients in physician-patient relationships characterized by strong, trusting physician-patient communications.
  • Most of these comments seem to come out of anger at having been disrespected in some way. I you have patients like this, simply acknowledge that you know this has been a problem in the past, that you are sorry, and will try and do better.  Then really try to improve.
  • Talk to your patients about their experiences in your practice. Just ask patients how you are doing, and then follow-up with meaningful change.   Don’t ask if you really don’t care.
  • Turn lemons into lemonade. The fact is that many patients find themselves in sub-optimal physician-patient relationships.   Given the dismal experience everyone is having, why not strive to stand out from the pack by providing an exceptional experience.   It should be relatively easy.

Steve Wilkins is a former hospital executive and consumer health behavior researcher who blogs at Mind The Gap.

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