What Doctors Can Learn From Unhappy Patients

Picture this scenario. You have an unhappy patient in your office, and, frankly, nobody on the staff (much less the doctor) is eager to jump into that thunderstorm.

Let’s hope that this doesn’t come up too often, but realistically it happens even in the best of practices. You and your staff should be prepared to defuse the patient situation before it escalates from “mildly annoyed” to “Category Five” on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

For the most part, patients don’t enjoy being patients. Whatever medical needs might cause them to see a doctor are likely to mean they are uncomfortable, unhappy and maybe a bit ill-tempered. Doctors and staff members, on the other hand, probably feel they’re doing their level best in a busy office. And their reaction to an unhappy customer/patient is to feel unfairly attacked and/or to be defensive or passive-aggressive.

Some of the reasons for quickly and empathetically dealing with an unhappy patient include:

  • It’s the right thing to do
  • Patient and professional referrals may be affected
  • Preserving a patient-doctor relationship is the goal
  • Word-of-mouth comments and ratings (either good or bad) are likely
  • Your reputation and your brand are at risk

In addition, “The most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning,” according to Bill Gates. There’s a strong likelihood that, at the core of the complaint, is an area for improvement and an opportunity to enhance patient satisfaction.

What you can do when storm clouds form…

Regardless of the reasonableness of the concern or the “degree of upset,” here are some of the cornerstone considerations that turn a negative situation to a positive (and insightful) resolution.

Assume a positive mindset. There’s an element of human nature that wants to dismiss, discount or minimize a complaint. Or perhaps, you feel “we’ll calm things down, but really, there’s nothing we can do about that.” There’s little fun in handling complaints, but take to the task with an attitude of helping the patient AND helping improve the practice.

Empathy is your ally. People want to know that you care about their feelings and that their issue is being heard. Identify and acknowledge their feelings.

Seek first to understand. Ask the individual to explain their concern or why they are troubled. It’s easy to assume you know, but (a) the core complaint might have deeper roots, and (b) inviting someone to elaborate can be calming.

Restate the concern for clarity. To be sure you’ve got it right, and to communicate a feeling of awareness and understanding, repeat their concern in your own words. Ask a checking question to see if you have properly framed the issue.

Say sorry. Another means to show you care is to honestly let them know that you’re sorry about the upset and that you want to help them with a resolution.

Invite their resolution. What they suggest may or may not be possible or practical, but it’s helpful for you to know what they see as a helpful solution. Sometimes a patient perspective is surprisingly simple and easy to achieve.

Offer your help. Explain what you are able to do to help them today. Let the person know that you are willing and able to work on those aspects that may not be immediately available.

Say thanks and mean it. Thank the person for offering ideas for the immediate and prospective longer-term resolution. Let them know that understanding the patient’s perspective is important to you, your staff and the practice, and a valuable resource for improving their satisfaction.

Follow-through. Recognize that issues are real to people and that one voice may represent others who remained silent. Do what you promised to do, and be sure the individual is aware of your actions on their behalf. To the extent possible, consider how the core issue might be eliminated or avoided in the future.

The potential outcomes in dealing with unhappy patients include restoring a valuable patient relationship, and prospectively improving the means and methods of service to the customer. It’s a source for learning more about the voice of the customer and improving healthcare delivery.

Ask yourself: How many others might have experienced this or another problem and never told you. How many just stayed silent and became a disappearing patient. And for other articles in this series, read: Frontline of Doctor Marketing: Listen to the Voice of the Patient, and Why Doctors Need to Hear Patient Gripes and Complaints.

Stewart Gandolf, MBA

Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer & Creative Director at Healthcare Success
Over the years Stewart has personally marketed and consulted for over 1,457 healthcare clients, ranging from private practices to multi-billion dollar corporations. Additionally, he has marketed a variety of America’s leading companies, including Citicorp, J. Walter Thompson, Grubb & Ellis, Bally Total Fitness, Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan. Stewart co-founded our company, and today acts as Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director. He is also a frequent author and speaker on the topic of healthcare marketing. His personal accomplishments are supported by a loving wife and two beautiful daughters.



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