By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer
Think of this article as a fire extinguisher of sorts. You may never need advice about dealing with angry patients, but it’s much better to be prepared in advance. Here are some of the top ways to deal with unhappy patients. And as we get started, keep some of these high-level ideas in mind:
First, have a good plan for angry patients…
To continue the fire extinguisher analogy, the operative words are “be prepared in advance.” If you wait for something, or someone, to burst into flames, it’s too late to start shopping. Statistics tell us that most healthcare providers are good at their job. Nevertheless, it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
The point is: Define a policy and procedure in advance of the need. Everyone in the office who has customer contact needs to understand how to identify issues, take action and follow the established resolution process.
Angry patients don’t always explode. Often, they quietly fade away…
Perhaps the helpful and healing nature of healthcare keeps consumers happier than in retail situations or many other industries. Typically, patients like their providers and are likely to offer positive reviews and comments about good doctors. But there can be a quiet and dangerous downside. Studies reveal that unhappy patients will often leave a practice without saying anything at all. They simply take their business elsewhere.
The point is: Tune into patients’ feelings. Ask about their needs and satisfaction. Use your system to measure patient satisfaction and to define issues, problems and positive solutions.
10 ways to deal with unhappy patients…
- Tune-in early. Be on the lookout for signals of discontent or distress. If you can spot the signs of mounting pressure, it’s usually easier to defuse a problem than to contain an explosion. Is the temperature rising? Is voice or inflection going up? Even smaller hints may be early warning flags and deserve extra attention.
- Empower everyone. Problems can appear at any time and at any contact point. Provide training for everyone and, whenever possible, give them the authority to resolve issues quickly—without having to move up to a “higher authority.” There are times when common sense is a better course than rigid policy or procedure.
- Act quickly. Nobody likes “bad news” or dealing with problems. But avoiding an issue makes matters worse. The longer a person is troubled by an issue, the greater the anger or upset. And, in addition to the initial problem, they feel ignored or neglected. Jump in early before the fire spreads.
- Remain calm. Resist any temptation to rise to the level of agitation of the person who is upset. A calm, polite and empathetic exterior can help control the situation and reduce everyone’s level of excitement.
- Start with, “I’m sorry.” These are the two most disarming words in any personal encounter. They immediately let unhappy people know they have your attention. The actual problem resolution is still to come but simply saying the words opens the door to a positive conversation.
- You are here to help. Reassure the person that you can help find an answer to the problem or resolve the issue. Position yourself as an ally, not an adversary.
- Listen for understanding and communicate genuine concern. It may or may not be possible to resolve their issue on the spot, but it is disarming to actively listen to the reason(s) for their upset. Ask questions and restate the problem or concern to show your understanding and awareness.
- Acknowledge feelings. People want to be heard and understood. Figuratively stand shoulder to shoulder with the upset individuals—not confrontationally face-to-face. Try to identify what sparked the anger and recognize how they feel. Let the person know that you understand the reason for their feelings.
- Find options, suggest solutions. Sometimes, great upset can be extinguished by a simple solution. A useful tactic is to ask the person if they have a resolution in mind. (You might be surprised how easy it is.) Alternatively, suggest two options for their consideration. Having a choice or some say about the outcome may resolve the issue quickly and satisfactorily.
- Learn from fixing the problem. Sometimes, customer complaints are unreasonable or unjustified. But it’s important to recognize that, sometimes, there are genuine problems that need a long-term or permanent solution. The perspective of the unhappy patient may provide an opportunity to learn and improve, so take a deeper look. Don’t be defensive or self-protective. Candidly consider how to adjust, improve and permanently avoid the same problem in the future.
Why you need to listen to angry patients…
Bill Gates may not have originated this idea, but it is a spot-on business lesson. He said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Or, from another point of view, “Your best teacher is your last mistake. You drive real service improvement from learning from the complaints you receive.”
Angry or unhappy patients provide insight for improvements. OK, they may not be right or even reasonable. Nevertheless, beyond the upset or issue, is a valuable learning moment that can protect your patient base, enhance your reputation, and preserve a patient relationship.
And to paraphrase another famous quote: Anyone can condemn and complain. But it takes character and self-control to understand and improve.