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MMP Classic: How to Apologize to a Patient

Sincerely Apologizing to Patients

I like to get complaints from patients.

No, I’m not a glutton for punishment. What I like about complaints is that I hear directly from the patient what is bothering them, and I have an opportunity to connect with them personally. The ideal situation is having the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the patient when they are in the office.

Here’s how to apologize to a patient.

Step One: Introduce Yourself

I introduce myself and shake the patient’s hand and the hand of anyone else in the room.

Step Two: Sit Down

I sit down. There are two reasons for that. One is to send the message that they do not need to hurry – this conversation can take as long as they need it to. The second is to place myself physically below the patient. If they are in an exam room sitting on the exam table, I will sit in the chair. If they are sitting in the chair, I will sit on the step to the exam table. The message I am sending is “I do not consider myself to be above you.” It sends a strong message.

Step Three: Let Them Tell Their Story

I say “I understand we have not done a very good job with __________ (returning your calls, giving you an appointment, getting your test results back to you, etc.) Can you tell me about it?” I do not take notes as I want to maintain eye contact and focus on the patient, but I take good mental notes. The patient and/or anyone with them needs to be able to talk as long as they want. They might need to tell their story twice or many times to get to the point where they’ve gotten relief. The patient has to get the problem off their chest before the next part can happen.

Step Four: SINCERELY Apologize

I apologize, saying “I’d like to apologize on behalf of the practice and the staff that this happened. I want you to know this is not the way we intend for _______ to work in the practice.” If anything unusual has been happening, a policy has changed, or new staff have been hired, I let them know by saying “So-and-so has just happened, but that’s not your problem. We know our service has slipped, but we’re hoping we are on the way to getting it fixed.”

Don’t forget that patients can tell if you are not being sincere when you apologize.

Step Five: Answer Questions

Answer any questions the patient has. Why did the policy change? Why can’t I get an appointment when I need one? How will you fix this for me?

Step Six: Close the Meeting

If the patient complaint requires an investigation and resolution, I give the patient a date when I will be back in touch with more information. If the patient complaint does not require any resolution on the patient side, I offer my name again and give them a business card or a way for them to contact me if they have further problems.

Step Seven: Resolve the Situation

I follow-up on the information the patient has given me to find out where the system broke down or where a new system might need to be developed, and if needed, contact the patient with further information and/or resolution.

Although most people prefer not to hear complaints, paying close attention to patient complaints helps a manager to keep a pulse on the practice, know what patients are struggling with, and of course, practice humility. All good stuff.

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC [in SF!] via Compfight cc




A Manage My Practice Classic: Why I Can’t Wait to Hear Patient Complaints

Patient Complaints in a Medical OfficeI have not always been excited to hear patient complaints. As a younger manager I absolutely dreaded when a patient wanted to speak to me. I felt that I had little to offer a patient who expressed anger or frustration with something that had happened and I was very impatient to get past the complaint and get back to my “job.”

Now, I can’t wait to hear patients’ complaints. Complaints are the only opportunity managers have to understand the patient’s experience and hear in their own words what went wrong for them. By listening carefully, you have the potential to accomplish several goals.

  1. You can heal the patient’s complaint, first by making sure the patient feels heard, and second by addressing the problem if something needs to be done.
  2. You can gain insight into an experience in the practice and dissect it to see why the problem occurred and what can be done to fix it.
  3. You can model to the staff how important patient complaints are and how seriously you take them.
  4. You can retain the patient for the practice, and hopefully make them a fan who will recommend your group to friends and family.

In the past it might have taken a lot for a patient to complain to the manager as many patients will not risk disenfranchising a physician they really like. Today is the advent of the consumerist patient, and people are feeling empowered to complain about problems in healthcare ( a good thing!) Healthcare managers need to step up to the plate to meet them and make sincere attempts to cultivate a positive patient experience from beginning to end.

Here’s how I suggest you listen to patients:

 

  • Instruct staff to prioritize patients calling and asking for the manager. Unless you are in the middle of a meeting, take all patient calls as they come in. If you cannot take the call, ask the staff to make sure to document the best time to return the call and the number. Prioritize returning the call.
  • You can delegate patient complaints to subordinate managers once you feel completely confident that they can handle the complaints appropriately, but you should continue to take calls periodically and check complaint documentation to make sure everything is going as you intend it to.
  • Listen to the patient until they are done talking. Apologize and let them know that their experience is not what you want for patients. Go back over the complaint and ask questions to make sure you understand what happened.
  • Tell the patient you will investigate the complaint and give them a definite date and time when you will call them back to report on what you’ve found.
  • Talk to all staff and physicians involved in the incident. Call the patient back and share any information that is appropriate. Most patients will be satisfied to receive a call back and hear that their complaint has been discussed.
  • Offer your direct phone number to patients and invite them to call you if they have any further problems. A nice touch is to invite patients to ask for you when they come in next for an appointment so you can meet them face-to-face.



Why I Can’t Wait to Hear Patient Complaints

I have not always been excited to hear patient complaints. As a younger manager I absolutely dreaded when a patient wanted to speak to me. I felt that I had little to offer a patient who expressed anger or frustration with something that had happened and I was very impatient to get past the complaint and get back to my “job.”

Now, I can’t wait to hear patients’ complaints. Complaints are the only opportunity managers have to understand the patient’s experience and hear in their own words what went wrong for them. By listening carefully, you have the potential to accomplish several goals.

  1. You can heal the patient’s complaint, first by making sure the patient feels heard, and second by addressing the problem if something needs to be done.
  2. You can gain insight into an experience in the practice and dissect it to see why the problem occurred and what can be done to fix it.
  3. You can model to the staff how important patient complaints are and how seriously you take them.
  4. You can retain the patient for the practice, and hopefully make them a fan who will recommend your group to friends and family.

In the past it might have taken a lot for a patient to complain to the manager as many patients will not risk disenfranchising a physician they really like. Today is the advent of the consumerist patient, and people are feeling empowered to complain about problems in healthcare ( a good thing!) Healthcare managers need to step up to the plate to meet them and make sincere attempts to cultivate a positive patient experience from beginning to end.

Here’s how I suggest you listen to patients:

 

  • Instruct staff to prioritize patients calling and asking for the manager. Unless you are in the middle of a meeting, take all patient calls as they come in. If you cannot take the call, ask the staff to make sure to document the best time to return the call and the number. Prioritize returning the call.
  • You can delegate patient complaints to subordinate managers once you feel completely confident that they can handle the complaints appropriately, but you should continue to take calls periodically and check complaint documentation to make sure everything is going as you intend it to.
  • Listen to the patient until they are done talking. Apologize and let them know that their experience is not what you want for patients. Go back over the complaint and ask questions to make sure you understand what happened.
  • Tell the patient you will investigate the complaint and give them a definite date and time when you will call them back to report on what you’ve found.
  • Talk to all staff and physicians involved in the incident. Call the patient back and share any information that is appropriate. Most patients will be satisfied to receive a call back and hear that their complaint has been discussed.
  • Offer your direct phone number to patients and invite them to call you if they have any further problems. A nice touch is to invite patients to ask for you when they come in next for an appointment so you can meet them face-to-face.



How to Apologize to a Patient

I like to get complaints from patients. The best situation is when I have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the patient when they are in the office.  No, I’m not a glutton for punishment. What I like about complaints is that I get to hear directly from the patient what is bothering them, and I have an opportunity to let a patient know what we’re trying to do in the practice.  Here’s my guide to patient apologies.

Step One: I introduce myself and shake the patient’s hand and the hand of anyone else in the exam room.

Step Two: I sit down. There are two reasons for that. One is to send the message that they do not need to hurry –  this conversation can take as long as they need it to. The second is to place myself physically below the patient.  If they are sitting on the exam table, I will sit in the chair. If they are sitting in the chair, I will sit on the step to the exam table. The message I am sending is “I do not consider myself to be above you.”  It sends a very strong message.

Step Three: I say “I understand we have not done a very good job with __________ (returning your calls, giving you an appointment, getting your test results back to you, etc.)  Can you tell me about it?”  I do not take notes as I want to focus on the patient, but I take good mental notes.  The patient and/or anyone with them needs to be able to talk as long as they want. They might need to tell their story twice or many times to get to the point where they’ve gotten relief.  The patient has to get the problem off their chest before the next part can happen.

Step Four: I apologize, saying “I’d like to apologize on behalf of the practice and the staff that this happened.  I want you to know this is not the way we intend for _______ to work in the practice.”  If anything unusual has been happening, a policy has changed, or new staff have been hired, I let them know by saying “So-and-so has just happened, but that’s not your problem. We know our service has slipped, but we’re hoping we are on the way to getting it fixed.”

Step Five: Answer any questions the patient has. How will you fix this for me?  Why did the policy change? What’s the best way to get an appointment? Are you trying to drive patients away? Are you going to hire more doctors?

Step Six: I offer my name again and a way for them to contact me if they have further problems.

Step Seven: I follow-up on the information the patient has given me to find out where the system broke down or where a new system might need to be developed.

I had the opportunity to apologize twice last week.  It helped me to keep a pulse on the practice, know what patients are struggling with, and of course, practice humility.  All good stuff for a practice manager.

For an excellent article on how doctors can apologize to patients for medical mistakes (AmedNews, February 2010) click here.