Non-professional employees in a physician practice play an important role. Whether scheduling patient appointments, handling collections, or otherwise assisting in patient services, the interaction of these employees with patients is essential to the success of the practice. However, inappropriate or illegal conduct of employees can also create liability or hurt the practice’s reputation and relationship with its patients.
Most physician practices train their employees in their practice roles. There can be scripts for almost every routine interaction, whether collecting copayments or processing a request for medical records. But one thing practices often forget is that employees, like every person in the world, come from a variety of backgrounds and bring with them entrenched feelings and personal biases about certain groups of people. Hopefully, such prejudices are never expressed openly. However, in many cases, an employee’s personal sentiments about disabled patients, or those of a particular race or religion, can become a significant issue. The need for a practice to train staff to be professional and tolerant of others is too often overlooked.
There are many ways in which an employee might express inappropriate biases in the workplace. For example, a patient in a wheelchair might be spoken to loudly by the receptionist as though less intelligent, and the disabled person might feel embarrassed or demeaned. When staff directs questions to somebody who accompanies the disabled individual, rather than the disabled patient, this can also be a sign that the patient is being disrespected.
When it comes to race and religion, examples of intolerance might result in staff using inappropriate slang to refer to someone within a minority group or one who is wearing a religious garment. Sometimes this can lead to the provision of services which are different or of lower quality. A staff member bringing unwanted attention to any patient because of their personal beliefs, or just making a patient feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, is hardly what a medical practice wants. Practices must make it clear that personal prejudices stay outside the practice.
Whether a patient identifies as gay or straight (or even how they appear to be) should also not affect how a patient is treated. However, many patients report they are treated differently based on sexual orientation. In particular, transgender patients may face slurs or jokes about their appearance and may even be refused services. Could this happen in your practice?
An employee’s personal feelings about race, sexuality, religion, or disability is something a practice cannot control. However, the practice can set the standard for acceptable behavior and tolerance with its employees and in doing so, will also protect the practice’s reputation and limit the practice’s liability as it relates to discriminatory practices:
1. Make it clear to all staff that the practice has a policy of accepting all patients, regardless of race, religion, orientation, etc;. An existing or potential employee who is not comfortable with this policy will hopefully look for another position.
2. Put your policy in writing and clearly outline the practice’s goals of treating all patients respectfully. The discipline that would result from violating the policy should also be clearly stated and enforced uniformly.
3. Think about different scenarios that could arise in your practice (or may have already occurred) and insert role-playing or other scripting into employee training. Employees should prepared to handle a variety of situations, whether it’s a female patient refusing to see a male physician for religious reasons, or a disabled individual complaining about amenities in the office.
4. Designate a senior individual that an employee can go discreetly, should new or uncomfortable situations arise.
Treating patients is not only about helping them feel better when they are ill. The experience of visiting a physician’s office is one where patients should feel safe and respected. If your practice is not creating an environment where all patients are welcome, then it’s time to evaluate your staff and practice policies to be sure they reflect how you feel about the patients you treat. This approach also makes business sense by protecting your practice legally and letting clients, referral sources, and other institutions with which you seek to do business know that your practice will treat all patients with dignity and respect.