Since my first article appeared in Physicians Practice in 2011, I’ve heard from numerous medical professionals, who have contacted me to ask questions, seek advice, express opinions, and extend compliments. And while some have disagreed with my suggestions, many more have sent notes of support.
But the thing that has surprised me most over the years is the number of emails I’ve received from patients who read this publication. Physicians and practice staff may be interested to learn what they’re saying.
The good news is that these folks are reaching out to share their healthcare experiences. The bad news is that not one message from a patient has been complimentary to the medical profession. Granted, it seems to be human nature to express more complaints than compliments.
The grievances I’ve received from patients can be sorted into three categories. Here’s an overview of what they’re saying with some ideas about how practices can circumvent these pitfalls.
Complaints in this category range from being verbally attacked by a receptionist to feeling insulted by a physician. One writer, the relative of a patient, spent countless hours in the waiting room during her loved one’s multiple treatments and claimed the entire office, including the specialist, was in on a network of gossip behind the couple’s back.
Other circumstances deemed rude by patients include having to wait for every appointment, feeling that they weren’t being listened to by a distracted doctor, and not being introduced to the strangers in the room (interns, residents, other staff, etc.). One patient wrote to tell me about the time a billing clerk suddenly entered the examination room mid-procedure to discuss another patient’s insurance claim with the doctor.
It’s understandable that patients can misinterpret visual and verbal cues, especially when they’re concerned about their health. While a physician’s eyes are on a tablet, the patient might be longing for eye contact with them. And they can easily mistake the slightest hint of brusqueness in a doctor’s voice as exasperation.
Shifting these perceptions can be as simple as taking a moment for an attitude adjustment between patients. On a more general scale, practices may want to host a meeting to develop a set of guiding principles with all employees, making sure those standards include injecting an element of kindness and compassion into every patient interaction. This applies to all departments, from reception to billing. And naturally, it’s vital to let patients know who else is in the examination room and why they’re there.
Patients are frustrated and confused when they’re not granted adequate time to have a complete conversation with a medical professional about their symptoms, results, treatments, medications, diagnoses, and plans. They clearly don’t like being rushed. When the physician is behind, they’re affronted.
While most people understand that doctors need to deal with urgent situations and unexpected booking changes, they appreciate being notified if there’s going to be a delay. This courtesy allows them to amend their plans accordingly, because their time is valuable, too.
A big part of this problem lies in unrealistic scheduling. Depending on the practice, there may be little or no say about how much time is allotted for each appointment or how many patients are seen in a day. If a physician is in in the envious position of controlling her calendar, she should do what she can to make the day flow more smoothly.
Brainstorm with staff to find ways to educate patients about what they can expect during their appointments. Fine-tune messaging by asking the receptionist or booking clerk to explain to patients how long they’ll have for their visit. If, for example, the policy is to deal with only one concern per visit, make that clear.
Some patients say they’ve been made to feel that they’re to blame for their medical condition. And let’s face it, that’s often the case. But they don’t appreciate being scolded or talked down to. What they’d rather have is understanding, support, and advice, which can be challenging when the practice is seeing the same people with the same problem time after time.
A lot of people are scared and intimidated when they visit a doctor. The last thing they need is to feel belittled, too. I’ve received lamentations about everything from a loss of character and morality in the medical profession to a lack of transparency in healthcare in general. And while it’s not possible to validate these one-sided complaints without a full investigation, it is wise to consider them as examples of potential problems in a practice.
The bottom line is this: Patients want patience as much as medical practitioners do. Beyond rudeness, rushing, and reproach lies respect. I get the feeling that’s what the patients who write me are looking for.
Sue Jacques is a professionalism expert, keynote speaker, consultant, and author who specializes in medical and corporate civility. A veteran forensic medical death investigator, Jacques helps people and practices prosper through professionalism.