How to Better Address Patient Complaints about Long Wait Times

January 31, 2014

There's no way your practice can run on time, all the time. But there are some ways to ease patient frustrations when you do run behind schedule.

There's no way your practice can run on time, all the time. But there are some ways to ease patient frustrations when you do run behind schedule.

One of the best ways: handling patient complaints regarding long waits appropriately.


That's according to Leslie Bank, director of customer service at Montefiore Medical Center, a large healthcare system based in Bronx, N.Y.

"Complaint is a human piece of business, so how it is managed, how it’s attended to is a great signal about how interested the practice, the personnel are in the patient making the complaint," Bank, who coauthored the book, I'm Sorry to Hear That: Real Life Responses to Patients' 101 Most Common Complaints About Health Care, recently told Physicians Practice. "If you’re looking for a loyal patient, or someone who is convinced that their interest is upmost in your mind, then a complaint is a gift, in a way, that allows you to cement that relationship and the engagement with the patient even more rock solid than before."

To ensure your staff is turning patient complaints into positive and productive interactions, follow these four tips: 

• Anticipate. Take steps to reduce the number of patient complaints that occur by being open and honest with patients regarding long wait times. Explain delays, and ask patients if you can do anything to make them more comfortable while they wait. "The main deal is not how you answer complaints but how you are already prepared, understand what complaints may be, and head off as many as possible," said Bank.

• Be consistent. Ensure staff, managers, and physicians know exactly how to respond to complaints, and ensure that those responses are consistent with your practice's mission and vision, said Bank. "You write the standards of practice and those standards should reflect what you feel is excellent service."

• Take the blame. When complaints do crop up, remember the three "A's," said Bank. "Agree, apologize, acknowledge that the complaint is valid whether you agree with that or not," she said. "This is effective because you are relating to the person’s emotions at the time. Some people are way off the Richter scale so by acknowledging and apologizing, you're right away getting underneath that emotional high and preventing any further escalation generally."

• Take it elsewhere. If a patient complaint begins to escalate, and the patient becomes extremely upset, loud, or unruly, act quickly and privately, said Bank. "Go quietly to the person, [say], 'I’m so sorry to you’re having a rough time. Please come with me let me see how I can help you.' Just get them out of the [reception] room."

Once you find a quiet and safe place to speak with the patient, sit down, make eye contact, and lean in toward the patient to make it clear that you are listening closely, said Bank. Say something like, "I see how upset you are and I am very sorry. How can I help?" she said. "Let the patient tell the story, then agree and acknowledge, then state, 'This is what I can do. Would that work for you?' Then see where that goes. Once you have acknowledged [the patient's emotions], the patient will be able to think more clearly."

What tactics do you recommend staff members use when patients complain about long wait times?