Handling the patient complaint

March 21, 2012

“You’re wrong!” A patient complaint is as powerful as a slap in the face. The words sting and when they come from a patient it most certainly feels like a threat to your integrity. Most people are tempted to show how they cannot possibly be wrong. Most people want to prove not only that they are in the right, but that the other person-in this case, the patient-is wrong.

“You’re wrong!”

A patient complaint is as powerful as a slap in the face. The words sting and when they come from a patient it most certainly feels like a threat to your integrity. Most people are tempted to show how they cannot possibly be wrong. Most people want to prove not only that they are in the right, but that the other person-in this case, the patient-is wrong.

It becomes a childish game of tug-of-war and putting any kind of effort or energy into making someone else wrong only causes a loss in the end; the cost of trying to make the other person see how right you are is significant. You could lose a patient, a family of patients, or worse, your own sense of honor. So if you’re not wrong can the other person be “not wrong” also? That is, can you allow for there to be two perspectives where both people are right?

It’s unusual to think that way. It’s more customary to pick a side and then look for points that justify our stance. That’s called politics and thinking that way has no place in your practice. You got into the dental field to provide a service to other people, to help them get better in some way. So help them in this instance, too. Allow yourself to understand the other person’s point of view.

Responding well

Handling patient complaints starts with managing your responses to such assaults against you. Complaints are seldom personal. Think about the last one you heard. Think about the last one you gave – “This meal isn’t the way I ordered it.” That’s information, not a personal assault on the chef or the wait staff. A patient complaint about how you’ve run behind schedule or how a temporary looks or feels is not a personal slam. It’s information about the perception of the other person. Allow the information to be emotionally neutral. It is, after all, simply the other person’s perception.

So how do you manage your responses? Begin by being grateful. The whole situation is likely to get significantly more calm if you approach it by being grateful that they brought the issue (their issue) to your attention. Stay curious, too. What is it about what they’re seeing that is an issue? What are you missing about what they’re saying? The most important thing to remember is that when a patient complains to you, they are giving you a valuable gift – the gift of information. Many people would simply, quietly, vote with their feet and abandon your practice. So be grateful when a patient is invested enough to tell you how he or she really feels.

Once you’ve adjusted your attitude, follow these steps:

1) Apologize. There’s no tug-of-war if you refuse to pick up the rope. So, express your regret that the other person has had the experience that they have. (This step saves money! It’s true!! Sometimes the disgruntled will take a complaint to the point of lawsuit only because the other person didn’t apologize.) It doesn’t admit guilt and it doesn’t mean you’re at fault. Your apology is directed at their experience. If you’ve been accused of running late (again), try saying something like: “I’m so sorry that you’ve felt frustrated and delayed.”

2) Inquire further. Sometimes people just want the opportunity to vent. Ask, “What else has happened in this practice that has disappointed you?” Patients will be surprised that you’re not on the defensive and that you’re actually taking an interest. It’s likely that you’ll get some further truth that you can use to help your practice get better. Honestly, wouldn’t you like to know that some elderly patients feel cold in the back? You could ignore that complaint because just about every office has trouble regulating the temperature from front to back. Or, you could take it as useful information and honor that patient’s experience. Perhaps your practice runs on time for most patients but by coincidence, this one patient has been made to wait the past few times he/she has had an appointment. Would you dismiss that information because you usually run on time or would you honor that information and acknowledge the patient’s experience?

3) Are you getting the theme here? Honoring the patient’s experience is the key to maintaining a great, long-lasting relationship. Tell the patient how glad you are that they brought the information to you. Let them know that it’s really important that they feel comfortable in your office and tell them that you’re glad they’re invested in helping to make it better.

4) Let them know that you’ll take action but don’t give away the store. It’s not uncommon to want to make everything right and then go overboard. Don’t offer 50% off of the next visit; that only trains the patient that you could have been offering deeper discounts along the way. Simply offer what’s appropriate to each situation. From the examples above, try something like, “Because you’ve said that you’re cold when you sit in the operatory, I’ll make a note in your chart to have a blanket ready for you. We’ll treat you like the VIP that you are.” Or perhaps, “We usually run on time but haven’t done so for you. To be able to treat you like the valued patient that you are, we’ll flag your next appointment, even making it at a slightly different hour so that we’re absolutely ready for you and you won’t be delayed.”

5) Check with them that what you’ve offered is OK and find out if there’s anything else that they’d like to share with you.

6) Follow-through. Do what you said you would do.

But what if they really are wrong?

Sometimes complaints are unwarranted. So, can’t patients be wrong, really? Yes, yes they can. The key here is to allow them to truly feel heard – listened to and heard. Then you enter from debate into the realm of dialogue and what they give you is simply information to be handled while you hold the emotion behind the words. Don’t dismiss it, hold it.

The keys to your success can be found in your leadership and your ability to create positive relationships with your team members and with your patients. Successfully managing a patient complaint is the foundation for long-term partnership with each patient. Drawing a patient into the practice by allowing them to have opinions and acknowledging their emotions can result in the trust needed for positive referrals, greater case acceptance, and ultimately, the solid fiscal health of the practice.
 

About the author

Dr. Wayne D. Pernell holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. He has been a full-time consultant with Pride Institute for over four years and boasts many successful clients across the country. Prior to joining Pride, Wayne provided management consultation and executive coaching services for leaders and their teams in companies such as Charles Schwab and Co., Whole Foods Market, and AAA. For more information on the Pride Institute, visit prideinstitute.com or contact Dr Pernell directly by phone at (800) 925-2600 or by e-mail at WayneP@PrideInstitute.com.