Ensuring that every patient has a pleasant, positive healthcare experience is obviously not within your control—not even close. There will always be patients who for whatever reason simply are dissatisfied with the care and attention they receive at your practice and they’ll be vocal about it. That’s why learning how to effectively deal with unhappy patients is more art than science. Some estimates show as much as 70 percent of patients may switch practices because they don’t feel appreciated.
But for the vast majority of patients, there are specific techniques and approaches that you can put into policy to help a patient feel more appreciated, overcome a concern, and even defuse a potentially volatile situation. Most people will value your efforts to treat them with respect, seek to understand and hear their concerns, and to do the “little things” that lead to a better patient experience. Most importantly, it will show in your retention rates.
And because much of your practice’s new patient acquisition and retention can hinge on your practice’s online reputation—think Google and Yelp reviews and social media posts—it’s vital to make every effort to accommodate patient concerns. Such efforts will not only help you to resolve patient concerns but your efforts to smooth things over can also appeal to prospective patients checking out reviews and looking to see how practices address problems. Acquisition and retention are both key to your practice’s bottom line and inextricably linked to your staff’s efforts to provide positive touch points along the way.
The following are 10 tips to help you interact more effectively with unhappy patients and to ensure that all your patients receive the respect and appreciation they deserve:
1. Don’t Overreact, Listen
When a patient says something unpleasant or negative, often our human nature kicks in and you automatically get defensive. It’s important here to remember that we need to put ourselves in their shoes and realize we may not fully understand the situation or why they’re upset. It’s important to keep your cool and remain calm no matter what the patient is saying.
As communication guru Stephen Covey once said, “ Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” If you can politely interact with the patient and try to get to the source of their frustration, you’ll be in a better position to take steps to resolve or at least hear and understand their concern.
2. Practice Empathy
Though you may not understand or agree with a patient’s grievance, it’s always helpful to remember to see things from the patient’s perspective. Maybe they just got bad news about a chronic condition from their doctor, maybe they’re just having a bad day, or maybe they’re having the worst day of their life. Unfortunately, you don’t have a crystal ball.
But you can practice empathy. Make sure you acknowledge what the patient is saying and even paraphrase their concern back to them to ensure you’re understanding them correctly. Try to make it clear that you care about their individual experience and want them to feel appreciated. Empathy creates a type of solidarity between two parties that enables you to work together rather than in opposition. Getting more information about their concern can help you overcome any misunderstandings and make sure you’re both on the same page.
3. Create a Win-Win
Find common ground that you can build upon, and look for opportunities that will help resolve the dispute. For example, discounting a bill shows you are willing to make concessions in order to resolve their concern and retain their patronage. If a patient is complaining about a long wait time, offering them a gift card doesn’t change their current dilemma. A better approach would be to offer them a gift card and promise them that you will look into your intake and check-in processes in an effort to reduce future wait times.
4. Offer an Apology
No matter who is right or wrong (often neither party), a sincere apology is a simple but effective way to calm a tense situation. Most people don’t want to “shoot the messenger”; they realize that what they want may or may not be within your control or discretion. Saying “I’m sorry” communicates that you’re trying to de-escalate the situation, that you’re willing to listen, and that you sincerely care about the experience they’re having. Apologizing shows the patient that it’s not an adversarial relationship but that you truly want to help resolve their concern if possible.
5. Validate Their Concern
Sometimes a patient just needs some validation of what they’re upset about. Acknowledge their complaint or concern rather than being dismissive. If a patient tells you the waiting room is a disaster, you don’t want to minimize their concern by replying “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Hear them out and ask for specifics. Admitting that they have a valid concern can go a long way in communicating to a patient that you respect and value their feedback. If you can’t fix a concern at the present time, let the patient know that practice management will give all due consideration to their suggestion as you seek to improve the practice.
6. Be More Personable, Less ‘Official’
No one enjoys dealing with an upset patient, but if you approach the task with a desire to help the patient— and the practice—the task becomes less daunting. Your patients should see you as their personal care provider, not some corporate entity that doesn’t care about their well-being. Remember to approach any conflict as a person, not a company, so retaining that patient becomes personal.
7. Ask for Input
When a patient has a complaint, one of the best means of validating their concern is to ask for their help in resolving it. What would they do to speed up the check-in process? How would they organize the waiting area? Listen closely to their responses and make note of their suggestions. Consider texting them a link to participate in a patient survey so that you can acquire their full feedback and suggestions.
If you’ve asked for suggestions through patient surveys, you’ve created an expectation that something will change. Prioritize the things that can be done right away as well as improvements that may take a bit more time. Keep your patients updated on those changes. Communication and patient retention go hand-in-hand, so don’t be afraid to let them know how you’re implementing their recommendations.
9. Say ‘Thank You’
When a patient brings an issue to your attention, it’s an opportunity for you to improve the workflow of your practice—and your practice retention. Their input is something worth expressing gratitude for, and a heart-felt thanks is the way to go. Not only does this tell your patient you are listening to them, it also demonstrates that you believe your patients are a valuable resource of ideas and suggestions.
Patient retention—even when patients may have a complaint—is really nothing more than applying the Golden Rule. Treating others the way you would like to be treated (not necessarily how they are actually treating you) keeps your focus simple and straight-forward, and keeps good patients coming back for years.
To learn more about how to get better feedback that will improve your patient retention, check out the guide, “How to Know What Your Patients Are Thinking (And How to Make Them Happier.”