When a patient submits a complaint to your practice, be grateful for the opportunity to respond! Only a minority of people who’ve had a negative experience take the time to report it. Sometimes complaints are warranted; at other times, they’re not. Regardless, practices should always do their best to address them appropriately. The consequences of handling a complaint incorrectly can be high – resulting in a poor online review, an inquiry with a governing body, or even a lawsuit.
The best approach here is to develop a strategy for handling complaints before they’re made. This will ensure that nothing gets missed, and you can turn every complaint into a chance to improve the practice’s standard operating procedures.
There are also things you can do to prevent complaints from arising in the first place. So let’s talk about both: how to avoid complaints and how to handle them when they happen.
What Can You Do to Prevent Complaints?
There are simple steps you can take to monitor patient satisfaction in a health practice which will help you identify weak spots and allow for corrections before they cause serious problems. Equip all staff with the tools and knowledge they need to confidently play their role in this process.
What does this look like in practice?
Step 1: Ask
The first step is to build an organisational culture that includes processes for seeking patient feedback with check-in points during the patient journey. This includes all patients, whether they are newly referred, regulars whom you have seen multiple times, or even patients who have finished or completed their treatment with you.
You may think that inviting feedback is asking for trouble. But patients respond well to knowing that their experience matters, and requesting feedback encourages people to be honest about any frustrations they might be experiencing. They’ll also be more understanding if they sense that the practice aims to please.
Of course, asking for feedback can take many forms. Making sure receptionists and practitioners are friendly and approachable is a good start. While the whole team should also ensure they look out for and address any concerns during their interactions.
In terms of feedback mechanisms, you can always ask patients directly, “Were you happy with everything today?” or “Are you happy with the service you’re receiving?”. But the best practice is to build in feedback loops at various points in the journey and in multiple formats. This could include verbal discussions, email check-ins, a question sent via SMS, iPad kiosks, a suggestion box in the waiting room, or even good old-fashioned pen-and-paper surveys.
The exact process you use will be individual to your practice, but it might include; an email follow-up after the first appointment, a prompt for the practitioner to have a discussion after 5 appointments, and an SMS question after every 3 appointments.
Step 2: Listen Like it Matters (Because it Does)
If you’re receiving feedback in person, put yourself in the shoes of the person talking. Acknowledge their worry or frustration and ensure you maintain a calm and empathetic demeanour. Thank them for the feedback, and assure them that their concern will be addressed. It may be necessary to lay out steps to address the feedback, and it may be helpful to refer to your strategy for handling complaints.
Step 3: Take Action
Steps 1 and 2 are pointless if you don’t act on the feedback you receive. Take patients seriously – especially if the feedback has been given repeatedly. For instance, if patients are frequently held up in the waiting room for long periods, you might need to adjust your processes or staffing levels.
Alas, despite one’s best efforts, things will go wrong sometimes, or people may find a reason to complain anyway. This brings us to the following question: What should you do when a patient complains?
How Can You Handle Complaints Successfully?
There are ways to receive and handle complaints while maintaining control of the situation:
1. How to Receive a Complaint
When faced with a complaint, it’s easy to become defensive, but doing so creates the potential for things to spiral. Remember, you often see people when they’re not at their best. They may be unwell or in pain, which sometimes manifests into irrational or demanding behaviour.
When a patient complains in person, do the following:
- Maintain your composure – be professional, friendly, and relaxed at all times.
- If the person making the complaint is particularly agitated, try to move the conversation to a private location. Asking: “Would you mind if I listen to your concerns/frustrations in XXX room?” This will place the focus on the fact that you want to listen to their complaint without giving the impression that you’re trying to get them away from other patients.
- Always give the person enough time to explain their concern – be an active listener and do not interrupt.
- Thank the patient for sharing their concerns with you and assure them that their satisfaction is your top priority.
2. How to Respond to a Complaint
Receiving a complaint with compassion and empathy is a great start, but the next important step is considering how you’ll respond. Responding to complaints with a reasonable explanation and a sincere apology paves the way for the issue to be resolved amicably.
When It’s Your Mistake
Suppose there’s been a mistake and something was done incorrectly – for example, a billing error, a practitioner arriving late, a scheduling error, or a report not being sent. It’s essential to be open and transparent in expressing an apology. Offering a solution or gesture of goodwill is a great way forward. This could include waiving a fee in cases of misunderstandings regarding payment, as this can help retain the patient rather than risk losing them. If the solution to the complaint is not immediately obvious, ask the patient for some time to look into the issue and provide an answer by a specific date.
When It’s Unclear
If the legitimacy of the complaint must still be established or it’s clear that the complaint is without merit, apologise without admitting fault. Try, “I’m sorry your appointment felt rushed. Do you have additional concerns I can relay to your practitioner?” Be careful never to talk down to a patient; this will upset them even more.
When It’s in Writing
If you receive a written complaint, your initial reply should state that you’ll look into it and try to solve it as best as possible. Now investigate the problem and provide feedback concisely but kindly. Let the person know what corrective action you’ve taken, but don’t reference disciplinary action where team members are concerned. Maintaining confidentiality should always be top of mind. Be sure to let the person know that their future care will not be affected.
BUT WAIT! Before you send this email, ask another team member to read it from an outside perspective. Sometimes it’s hard to reply objectively. In fact, don’t reply right away; give yourself and the patient time to calm down. The benefit of some time and distance from the initial complaint increases the chances that the patient will see your response as reasonable.
Whether the complaint is made verbally or in writing:
- Always collect as much information as possible about the issue so that it can be investigated thoroughly.
- Give the patient an anticipated timeline for conducting and concluding the investigation and stick to it.
- Inform any staff members implicated in the complaint. For instance, if the complaint relates to care, talk to the practitioner; if it relates to billing concerns, relay it to the account representative, and so on. Conducting interviews or reviewing records where necessary.
- Always document any and all communication that takes place, and store this information separately from the patient’s treatment records.
- After you’ve completed investigating the issue and any corrective action is taken, it’s essential to communicate this to the patient. Show your appreciation for bringing you their concerns, and assure them that excellent service is your practice’s highest priority.
Know When to Close Down an Interaction
Set boundaries and stick to them. Remember that you often deal with returning patients who visit the practice regularly. If you don’t set boundaries, you may teach people they can mistreat you and your team and get away with it.
Practice owners are responsible for providing team members with a safe, positive working environment shielding them from unpleasant interactions. Act as a protective layer between the team and patients where possible. As a business owner, the team comes first. If you have to lose a patient to protect a team member, know when it’s time to let the patient go.
Examples of How to Handle Complaints
When receiving complaints, the default setting as a practitioner is to alleviate distress. So when something is interpreted as causing distress, it doesn’t always come naturally to enforce boundaries. But if boundaries aren’t enforced, practitioners may end up burned out and financially struggling, with patients taking advantage of your practice. It’s possible to be firm and fair at the same time.
Here are some examples of how complaints might be handled:
1. Billing/Fee Miscommunication
Complaint: “My GP told me this appointment would be free. But now I’m told there is a $100 gap.”
Reality: There were multiple touchpoints where fees were communicated before the appointment.
Reply: “Dear XXX, we sent several emails and texts before your appointment, but it sounds like you didn’t receive these. Would it be possible for you to check and see if you received them?”
In this case, you could waive the gap fee for that appointment, with the understanding that you can’t provide services without additional payment in the future.
In the above example, the practice doesn’t push the point and insist that the patient pays for that day, but it’s critical not to make an ongoing concession. If you give in on something, give in on the thing that has the most negligible impact on the business but the most significant immediate impact on the patient. So while the patient isn’t paying a fee for that day, you’ve secured a patient who has agreed to continue treatment and pay your rate moving forward. You can reinforce this with fee reminders within your appointment reminder emails/SMS messages.
- Give the patient the maximum benefit of the doubt.
- Look for a compromise that allows them to save face.
- Plot a path forward that is viable.
2. Scheduling Problem/Practitioner Running Late
Acknowledge the issue and own it: “We’re really sorry, we’re running late. To give you some context, XXX is what happened.”
For example, if another patient comes in with unexpected issues, helping them might take longer than their allotted time. Where appropriate, explain the situation to the complainant. When patients understand the reason for a delay, they know that they haven’t been ignored, that their concerns are valid and will be less likely to get upset.
When dealing with complaints, preparation and communication are key. Take the time to detail your process for dealing with complaints, and have templates ready so you can respond quickly and with empathy.
Once you know what successful complaint resolution looks like, you can go one step further by informing all new patients of the feedback process up-front. You can build it into your Power Diary email templates, for instance, when sending out the first appointment reminder or when you issue the patient’s invoice. You can also put the steps for dealing with a complaint into your Practice Manual within Power Diary so that all team members can find them when needed.
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